7 Ways to Get Your Point Across: The Manager's Guide to Effective Communication

Mihir Patkar
Mihir Patkar / May 22, 2018

As a manager, the way you communicate with your team plays a big role in their performance. Whether you are in a traditional office or a remote, distributed team like Zapier, technology can help. Apps like Slack bridge the communication divide, and video chat tools like Zoom can almost help you feel like you're in the same room.

But it's not just apps that make your communication work. You need a communication strategy to keep team members motivated while pointing out areas they need to improve, check on their progress, and clarify what they want to achieve in their career. A simple conversation isn't enough—you need unique ways that help you communicate effectively Pair those apps with the right hacks, and you'll have an effective communication strategy.

Check Progress Daily

One managerial duty is to check in with every team member and make sure they're working toward their goals and deadlines—and you need to do that without being intrusive. Stand-up meetings—meetings so short, no one bothers to sit—are an effective way to have daily progress checks. Every morning, before you and your team begin your work day, hold a short stand-up and discuss what you're working on today.

This daily #standup meeting answers three questions based the SCRUM project management system. One by one, have each employee set an agenda for the day that answers three questions:

  • What will you work on today?
  • What is the goal for the day?
  • Is anything hampering your progress?

Setting the agenda takes almost no time, and quickly ensures everyone is on the same page and working toward the same team goal.

The folks at Parse.ly have digitized daily meetings for their remote team. Employees start every day by posting "#standup" in their team chat app followed with their daily agenda. At the end of the day, they use "#sitdown" posts to report progress. Two simple hashtags ensure the manager and team can check what anyone is working on today, and what progress they have made on it.

"Our team does this practice religiously, and it completely eliminates the need for 'status update' meetings present in so many (in my opinion, dysfunctional) organizations," writes Parse.ly co-founder Andrew Montalenti.

Similarly, have a sit-down meeting at the end of the day each day to give your team an opportunity to reflect on whether they achieved the day's goals and plan for the next day. Productivity experts always recommend planning the next day's to-do list before you finish your current work day—this helps you accomplish that as a team. In fact, a recent study shows that planning to-do lists before bed can help you fall asleep faster.

Know When to Use Positive and Negative Feedback

positive or negative feedback

Perhaps the toughest job of being a manager is the feedback cycle. It's critical for your team to know they're on the right track and to get better at their work. But if you don't communicate feedback well, you'll be ineffective, perhaps seen as a harsh critic or demanding boss.

It's always good policy to write down your feedback, whether in email or a specific feedback tool such as Small Improvements. Writing down feedback gives you time to weigh your words and make sure you don't say something you will regret or that the employee will misinterpret. If you're confident about face-to-face meetings, go ahead and share feedback verbally, but document it in writing afterwards.

Either way, alter the feedback according to the employee and his or her situation. A study by behaviorists found that people typically respond to positive or negative feedback differently, based on their current relationship to their goals.

Workers who are new to an organization or novices in their field tend to respond better to positive feedback about their attitude. The overriding question for such employees is, "Am I committed?"

Workers already entrenched in their jobs, or experts in the field, often respond better to negative feedback about their progress and methods because the overriding question for them is, "Am I making sufficient progress?"

Remember to assert the aspect of the feedback that is more important to this employee, and hone your language accordingly.

Use a Feedback Model

So what is good feedback? Author Jocelyn K. Glei has a few tips. In an article for for the Harvard Business Review, she shared three basic principles for giving feedback, especially over email:

  1. Start by appreciating the employee, expressing thanks, and complimenting their commitment to their work.
  2. Give a clear set of instructions about what you expect from the person. Ask (not order) the employee to incorporate the feedback.
  3. Make the overall team goal clear, and express to the employee that they are a part of a team that is making progress together, not as individuals.

Mark Horstman, author of The Effective Manager, builds on that idea with a few other suggestions on how to give feedback, which make up his Manager Tools Feedback Model:

  1. Ask. Say, "May I give you some feedback?" instead of "Hey, I need to talk to you!" Whether the feedback is positive or negative, always ask the member to be open to feedback.
  2. Describe specific behavior. Talk about what you saw or heard, not about what you concluded out of it. So say, "You have been coming in late for the past week." Don't say, "You are lazy and need to come in earlier."
  3. Describe the impact of the behavior. Walk the employee through how their actions affect the organization, without assuming they know this already.
  4. Discuss next steps. Ask the employee to come up with what they think should be the next steps; don't suggest them yourself. Then ask the employee how you can help them accomplish those steps.

With each model, you're reminded to think about the feedback in a general way, set the employee up to accept the feedback, and find actionable ways to improve. Those steps will make your communications far more effective than simply sharing your direct thoughts about a situation.

Keep Morale High and Create a Happy Workspace

Collaboration

As a manager, it's in your best interests to keep employees happy, as happiness at work and high team morale often lead to greater productivity.

A study in the Illinois Business Law Journal concluded with a basic tip on how to raise team morale: Have fewer rules. Fewer rules lead to more respect. Employees feel demotivated when they are burdened with rules and policies that take up time and mental space. Employees are adults with pride and self-respect. Treat them as such.

It's easier said than done, of course. Former Google CEO and Alphabet Executive Chair Eric Schmidt believes one key to good management and high team morale lies in empowering employees to make decisions quickly. The Balance expands on this advice with a number of actionable ideas, including these two:

  • Never punish a thoughtful decision. You can coach and counsel and provide training and information following the decision. Don’t undermine the employee’s confidence that you are truly supportive of her involvement.
  • If you are a supervisor and people come to you continuously to ask permission and receive instructions about their work, ask yourself this question. "What am I doing that makes people believe they must come to me for each decision or permission?" You are probably communicating a mixed message which confuses people about your real intentions.

Of course, along with this, you need to take care of all the hygiene factors that go into employee motivation. Your workers need to be fairly compensated, have access to the necessary tools to do their job, and understand the company's mission and vision. Then, empower them to make decisions with fewer rules to cut out some of your most frustrating communications while making your team happer.

Follow The Disgruntled Employee Handle-Book

How should you handle disgruntled employees? Despite your best efforts to keep team morale high, you might end up with an unhappy employee or two. Discontent has a habit of spreading fast. You need to deal with such workers quickly, gracefully, and empathetically.

In the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, co-authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler suggest a few things not to do once you have initiated dialogue:

  • Don't attempt to be right. If the disgruntled employee makes a few mistakes in their conversation, let them. Now is not the time to make corrections.
  • Don't compare situations. Even if the situation you are dealing with is something you have already faced with another employee, take the time to listen again. Each worker feels their problem is unique, and each manager should take the time to understand what makes it unique. Never bring up a similar previous situation when talking with the current employee.
  • Avoid referring to company policies. As mentioned, policies and rules don't make for happy employees. Patterson says most employees view policies as ways for the company to protect itself. Quoting a policy makes them feel like you aren't listening.

While that takes care of what not to do, there are a few things you should do as well. Grenny has some good advice on how to listen and respond to workplace concerns:

  • Make it safe. Someone who is unhappy at work already feels victimized in some way. You need them to open up so you can help solve their problem. But if they feel like complaining will have repercussions, they are less likely to be honest. Tell the employee explicitly that it's your job to help them succeed.
  • Look for the truth. Negative feedback is hard to take, and it's natural to feel defensive. Curb that instinct, as difficult as it might be. Instead, pose questions to find the truth. When you hear any generic statement, such as "You play favorites," accept it and ask for specifics. A good reply might be, "I'll note that feedback. Can you give me an example?"
  • Listen for hesitance. In one-on-one communication, pay attention to cues like extended pauses, awkward glances, or other behavioral signs that indicate the employee might be hesitant about saying something. It's more difficult for online conversations, of course, but a tell-tale sign is a long "is typing…" notification followed by it suddenly going away.

Negotiate Rather Than Battle

Sign contract

You are responsible for your team, which means you will be part of negotiations whether during the initial hiring process, appraisals, requests for leaves, or in balancing daily workloads. And that can be more tough than it seems at first.

The Harvard Law School's Program On Negotiation advises using "integrative negotiation" as the cornerstone of your bargain. Integrative negotiation is akin to coming up with a win-win situation. You don't need to beat the other side to "win" a negotiation. A successful negotiation is where both parties come off thinking they got a win.

Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, is known for explaining the art of negotiations—with tactics that apply to hostages and team members alike. He employs integrative negotiation in his parlays, stressing that you shouldn't see a negotiation as a battle.

In the podcast Science of Success, Voss laid down three negotiation tricks that work with anyone.

  1. Mirror or repeat the demands as questions. This advice is simple yet devious. Voss says it worked in every single negotiation in his 24-year career. Once someone lays down demands, repeat the last few key words of the sentence as a question, then pause. For example, if they say, "I want to work from home for two days a week," you'd reply with, "You want to work two days a week from home?" and wait. Voss says repeating the demand has a two-prong effect. First, it makes people feel like they are being heard. Second, the pause is awkward, so the person making demands ends up talking more to explain it, usually divulging crucial information about their needs.
  2. Ask open-ended clarifying questions. In case the mirroring technique only draws a monosyllabic response, you shouldn't give up. Voss recommends asking open-ended questions for clarity. For example, in the above scenario, if the employee said "Yes" to the mirrored question, the manager should follow it up with, "What is enticing to you about working two days a week from home?" ENS International, a firm that trains business negotiators, says that close-ended questions that draw a simple yes or no "make the other party feel defensive and to close down."
  3. Use "how" to get them to step into your shoes. The first two tips are all about understanding where your employee is coming from. The third tip is to make the employee empathize with you. Voss advises that the word "How" is critical to this step. Whatever your employee's demands are, counter them with, "I understand your concerns, but how do you think I should go about solving them?" By making the worker think about things from your perspective, you reduce tensions while also revealing how they think the organization works.

Finally, when you have these answers, end the conversation by asking for time. Do not commit to making any deal while the negotiation is in progress. Not only does this give you a moment to reflect and plan the deal, but it also ensures the employee doesn't feel rushed into it.

Use Technology, But Not Too Much

Technology can help make a manager's job much easier, especially when it comes to staying in close contact with a team and providing feedback. A few tools in particular promise to ease the burden of communication for managers.

Team chat apps are excellent for frequent, daily communication. Slack is among the most popular chat apps for organizations because it supports dozens of third-party apps that help you get more work done directly from chat. Or, for more focused chats, apps like Twist or Google Hangouts Chat organize conversations into focused threads that make sure your team finishes the discussion.

Video conference tools, such as Appear.in and Zoom, let managers have virtual facetime with employees no matter where they are. Appear.in is a simple option that works from any browser, doesn't require sign-ups, and is free for up to eight users with no time limits. For larger teams, Zoom—the tool Zapier uses for team calls—is likely a better fit, and free for up to 50 people with 40 minute calls.

If writing isn't your strong suit, let a writing assistant app, such as Pro Email Writer, do some of the heavy lifting. Whether you need to come up with a formal or informal message, Pro Email Writer has templates for common office communications.

Then, there are tools designed for specifically for follow-up actions discussed in meetings. IDoneThis, for example, works well in tandem with daily stand up and sit down meetings, as team members can list things they plan to do and also write down the tasks they've already done. Small Improvements helps with the long term perspective, letting you document each meeting and see how your team is working towards objectives.

While technology can ease the burden of communicating, though, always be sure to put the employee first no matter how you talk with them. When you are talking with any employee, ignore your phone or computer. Workers view tech distractions as a sign of disengagement and lose trust quickly, says a study from Baylor University.


Stick to the Basics

While the scenarios are different, there are a few common threads in the advice for ideal team communications:

  1. Treat employees with respect in the workplace.
  2. Show appreciation for what a worker does correctly, and for their attitude.
  3. Don't ascribe motives to actions, talk only about the action.
  4. Figure out the next steps in any situation, don't just talk without discussing what to do about it.
  5. Empathise.

Following these basic tenets will help a manager tackle any communications situation, whether it's with an individual or a team. Combine them with communication apps and you'll have a solid communication strategy, one apps alone can never bring.

Header photo via Pixabay; Feedback graphic via Pixabay; Signature photo via Pixabay; Collaboration photo via Unsplash.

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