3 Science-Backed Steps to Better Workplace Communication

By Hollis Kool Oct 19, 2017 8:00:00 AM

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I’m about to share a truth that may be a little hard to hear, but it needs to be said. Most of us are really bad at communicating—especially at work. There’s a reason why it’s so hard to communicate well in the workplace: We have to navigate the fine line between professional and social as well as the complex relationships we have with our coworkers.

But communication is such a big part of the employee experience that it can’t be neglected any longer. And it’s no secret that it’s a pain point at many companies. In fact, according to research by Deloitte, only 14% of companies believe their internal processes for collaboration and decision-making are working well, and 77% believe email is no longer a viable tool for effective communication.

It can be particularly difficult to change the entire nature of your workplace’s communication. Overhauling everyone’s communication style is a tall order. But, you’d be amazed at the way that changing your approach to communication can affect nearly all of the interactions happening around you.

Read on to learn about three tactics you can start to practice to work better in teams, improve interactions with your manager, help lead others, or find the right tone while you are in the break room.  

1. When you listen, really listen.

We are all guilty of zoning out when others are talking and mindlessly nodding in false recognition of their point. But people are attuned to whether you’re really listening, and that knowledge impacts how they perceive you. The Harvard Business Review reports on a brain-imaging study finding that “when employees recalled a boss that had been unkind or un-empathic, they showed increased activation in areas of the brain associated with avoidance and negative emotion while the opposite was true when they recalled an empathic boss.”

The ability to understand and recognize someone else’s perspective is called having a theory of mind. Even as adults, it can be hard to do when we are busy and under stress. The problem with shallow listening and responding is that it mutes the power of individual voices and influence, and prevents a sense of group solidarity.

Not sure if you have the skills it takes to be empathetic? It turns out there are a few guidelines that will help you cultivate empathy.

You can start by using the strategy of reflective listening. This technique involves active listening, and then the reiteration of whatever someone just said to affirm them that you understood their intent. Using statements like “If I understand you correctly, you are saying…” or “I hear that you are saying…” make people feel validated and understood, and you can simultaneously avoid any miscommunication.

Effective communication also doesn’t just have to happen through the way that we talk, but also through our expressions and other nonverbal cues. According to one experiment conducted by a psychologist at New York University, people that mirrored the gestures and facial expressions of the person they were conversing with were rated as more likeable.

While it seems like an obvious point, truly listening to your colleagues and indicating as such has a major benefit for business outcomes.

2. Give constructive feedback, but ask first.

People really thrive off of validation. We enjoy being right, we enjoy being told we are right, and we like feeling like we are the only ones who are right—even when we’re wrong. That’s why any kind of feedback in the workplace can be tough, and can cause tension if given badly, because it can make people feel undermined or underappreciated in their efforts or ability.

That being said, feedback from colleagues is shown to be a great motivator in the workplace. Research shows that recognizing an individual’s independent work, using constructive criticism to validate their ability, and connecting with the employee enhances feelings of autonomy, competence, and closeness to others in the workplace.

Of course, there’s a good—and bad—way to give feedback. Negative feedback can go awry, and becomes unconstructive when employees feel shot down or invalidated. Similar to reflective listening, in your feedback, it’s important to establish that you recognize and understand their original approach and the effort they put in. Creating this sense of congruence between colleagues can keep respect and trust alive.

It’s also always a good idea to help create a consensual feedback process. Before giving any type of judgment of someone’s work, ask them if they’d like to hear your thoughts, whether they be positive or negative. In that way, the recipient of the feedback feels more in control and open to receiving advice, edits, and suggestions. Also, the more often feedback is given and talked about in the workplace, the less it feels like a judgment or problem, and more of an instated aspect of day-to-day communication.

3. Aim for sincerity (rather than authenticity)

We hear a lot of buzz about “authenticity” these days, but it turns out that saying exactly what’s on your mind is not always the best strategy in the workplace (or in life, for that matter!).

Psychologists have identified a trait called “self-monitoring” that refers to people’s tendency to scan their environment for cues and avoid offending others (vs. being guided by their inner states, regardless of their environment).

In the workplace, people who have a higher tendency to self-monitor advance faster than their lower self-monitoring coworkers.

Adam Grant suggests that we, “Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be. Rather than changing from the inside out, you bring the outside in.” He describes successful consultants and investment bankers who took stock of their surroundings, experimented with different leadership styles, and practiced them until they became natural. Grant writes, “They were not authentic, but they were sincere. It made them more effective.”

Look at the successful and effective leaders around you currently. Do they have approaches to communication that you could “borrow” until they become second nature?

Why it all matters

If you can master the art of work communication, it pays—literally. Everyday communication, particularly communication between managers and employees, is key to employee satisfaction and is shown to help improve employee job satisfaction, collaboration, and retention.

Not only is communication effective to keep employee relations positive, research shows that relationships with managers are the primary determinant whether people stay at their workplace. A Gallup survey showed that 70% of the difference in employee engagement scores varied according to employee relations with managers.

There’s a reason why so many companies and people managers are falling short—as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, communication is HARD. But now you’re armed with some science-backed techniques to help you improve communication at your company. I look forward to hearing how it goes!

Photo by Climate KIC on Unsplash

Topics: communication, company culture, management, managers, employee engagement, employee wellbeing

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