Communicating with staff involves multiple avenues

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You likely are reading many of the same business news stories I am. One trend I have noticed in the past few years is a closer examination of management strategies and their impact on stockholders’ equity.

When potentially powerful people are watching you, you tend to pay attention to the demands of those doing the watching. The microscope effect can have a real impact. Management leaders have responded by using every tool at their disposal to increase profits, even in the absence of increased revenue — finding ways to cut costs. Many realize they have cut into the real meat of their organization and are looking for ways to revitalize it. Most managers seem not to realize the impact these changes have had on employees. In most cases, past communication has been minimal, and then only one-way.

Many companies say little to their employees about where the organization is headed, creating concerns about loss of pay and loss of security. Communication as a topic has been covered in the management and marketing columns of this magazine. However, I was exposed in a textbook I used recently to some different perspectives (“Management: Essential Concepts and Applications,” by Robbins, Decenzo and Coulter, Pearson, 2013).

Some of the following are drawn from their presentations; others come from a series of interviews I have conducted, some from water sports industry managers. The umbrella question in all management circles is just how effectively managers are able to communicate. Technology has affected the methods by which managers can communicate, but which technique is better? Consider this example, which went against the technology trend: A president of a major university, after being on the job about six months, issued a mandate to his staff members, all of whom were on two floors of the same building he was: “Stop sending emails to each other and walk to your colleague’s office and talk face to face to solve issues or share perspectives.”

This was in the 1990s. Imagine what he would say today with an even wider array of technological tools available. You have a choice of avenues. How effective will each be in communicating your message? Will more than one avenue of communication help?

The communication system itself has not changed. We still have a sender, a message and a receiver. The sender normally will choose how to send a message and can use any of several avenues: 1) verbally, face to face, one on one; 2) verbally face to face as a small group; 3) verbally face to face with a large group; 4) verbally by telephone; 5) verbally, almost face to face, by “skype,” individually, or with any size group (other technology programs, such as GoToMeeting, could be used;) 6) written hard-copy letter sent to the receiver; 7) written letter sent to the receiver via email; 8) written “letter” sent via Twitter to a selected list; and the list goes on. The key issue is how well the receiver gets the intended message. How do you know?

Some key points I have gathered from interviews: a) many younger workers prefer a text over a phone call (or maybe any face-to-face encounter); b) texters love to respond and give reaction; c) some people need a formal written letter or document to believe the information; d) some people are always checking social media accounts or even the company’s online bulletin board (do you have one?); e) some people will need to ask questions fully to understand any change in business behavior or directions. The communications must be spread via multiple avenues today.

You may remember as a child using two tin cans with a string between them to simulate a telephone line and handsets. The reception was never very good. There was too much interference or static. When the other person could not understand, you talked (yelled) louder. The same thing can happen today in many of these eight-plus avenues for communicating. The sender is responsible for ensuring that the message is received as intended. Thus the choice of which avenue to use is made by the sender.

Here is where some managers create problems for themselves. Are you capable of using all eight-plus avenues? Have you used GoToMeeting? Have you used Twitter? Do you have any social media accounts? The so-called millenials use all of the technology available to communicate with one another. They have preferences as to how they wish to receive information. On the other hand, many managers — from supervisory to executive — may have minimal technological skills, at best.

If the managers have children or grandchildren in middle school or higher, the younger family members cannot understand why mom and dad do not use technology as much as they do. The same situation develops on the work floor; younger workers have minimal respect for older managers — in large part because of the apparent resistance of the managers to technology. Seniors may even criticize younger employees for their use of technology. Be advised: The technology the younger folk love is not going away, but will only grow and be upgraded. Just consider the annual new items available from Apple.

So when we factor in the technology and the likely lack of technological skills among managers, what is the added dilemma for effective communications? The sender of the communication is no longer the sole decision maker about what avenue to use. Just as James Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (“Challenge of Leadership,” 2012 revision) argue that a leader today must consider how the followers prefer to be led, so a leader transmitting a message to those being led must consider how the receiver(s) prefer to get information. Yes, this will take more time from the manager, but it is likely that the extra effort will pay dividends for the organization. These writers were among the earliest to see the need for using multiple avenues for communication as a leader.

This is not unlike the manner in which many managers attempt to generate motivation among their work force. Each person is different; there is more than one way to lead; motivation efforts should be tailored to each person; each person likes to be communicated with differently. What is a clue you receive that the communication is a success? What questions come up? None? Then you have problems. Questions allow for clarification, and that is good. How have you prepared to encourage questions and a dialogue? Perhaps those who tweet are accustomed to responding and seeking clarification. For larger firms that maintain some variety of company bulletin board, you can also include a screen for questions that can then be answered. This is important because for each person who asks a question, there are others who want to ask one, but will not. Share the questions and answers, and others probably will pop up — especially if there is anonymity.

Here’s a brief exercise for you: List the next three items you want to communicate to various groups. How will you communicate each? Will you have any interference in the chosen avenue? Is this the way most people will want to receive it? Are there alternate ways that some may prefer?

How can you be sure the message was received and understood? Should you use more than one communication avenue for each information item you need others to be aware of? If this is a major item about the company’s direction for the future, what avenues would you choose?

Why not contact your local community college about a communications workshop for your management staff? Think about it. Drop me a note to discuss, if you like.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue.

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