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Crucial Conversations QA

Solving Communication Problems at Work

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Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I work in the HR department for a consulting company. I have worked there for almost eight months and I’ve noticed an ongoing issue with communication—or the lack thereof. On a weekly basis, I discover problems that could have been easily prevented with proper communication.

How do I ask my managers to communicate better with the entire department? I feel as though they don’t think there is a problem. It also appears that they are too busy to resolve ongoing issues. I however, desperately need to solve this problem before I lose my mind.

Desperate

A Dear Desperate,

Unfortunately, you’re not alone in your dilemma. When you look at organizational and team surveys, ineffective communication always scores as one of the top three problems. And as you have clearly experienced, this problem is not benign—the consequences are very serious.

So why doesn’t this problem get solved? The most apparent reason is that urgent visible priorities always trump invisible priorities. When people are up against goals, deadlines, and meetings, it’s hard to stop and think about fixing infrastructure. Another reason is that improving communication is rarely included on performance appraisals. And lastly, poor communication persists because managers sometimes just don’t see the problems it causes. And if the people closest to the problems don’t surface the issues in ways that matter, managers may know of the problems, but may not “feel” the problem enough to make it a priority. Any solution will need to address these kinds of issues.

So, here are a few suggestions to help you improve communication at your company:

1. Schedule regular time to communicate. When a problem occurs as a result of poor communication, be sure to write a brief description of the problem, a list of a few possible consequences, and a proposed solution. Then find a “safe” moment to talk about it with your manager.

Your conversation may sound something like this: “I’ve noticed a communication issue that, if solved, would make the team more effective and I’d like to talk about it for a few minutes. Here in the local office, we often don’t get information that allows us to set priorities on our projects. Because of this, we delay until we get the necessary information and then rush to finish the project on time. This causes a lot of stress and errors. I’m wondering if we can schedule a weekly fifteen-minute call to review priorities and talk about any questions or communication issues that, if answered or solved, would help us be more productive.”

2. Identify and share effective and ineffective behaviors. The second approach focuses on the behavior of individual managers and maybe even team members. Identify the behaviors that are working, not working, or missing—on all levels. If you can identify them, step up to the conversation—lead with an observation and a question. For example, “I’ve noticed that when one of the team members approaches you with a concern about the status of the project, you often brush it off until you feel you have time to address the problem. By then, it’s often too late and the project is far off course. Can we talk about this and see what can be done to make some improvements?”

It’s always best to start with yourself and then move to the next person. If you run into resistance, share your intention—you are trying to improve communication so the team can be more effective.

3. Obtain data by conducting a survey. One of the best ways to get the attention of managers and technicians is to share data. In order to obtain sufficient and significant data, conduct a survey. A survey will help you identify the issues you need to work on as well as uncover solutions to the most important issues.

When creating your survey, start by asking these three questions:
1) What behaviors help us get our work done?
2) What behaviors hinder our work?
3) List specific suggestions for improving our work or our team.

4. Garner support by talking to your colleagues. I once heard a manager say that if one person came to her with an issue and a solution, she had to think about it. If a group came with an issue and a solution, she had to attend to it. So to get management’s attention, get support from the whole team. Check with your colleagues to see if they feel a similar frustration and if so, exactly where their pain points are. Then, propose a structured solution accordingly. Have one or two people present the team’s plan to the manager to ensure he or she doesn’t feel overwhelmed and outnumbered.

In summary, communication cannot be left to chance. The easiest way to solve many of these problems is to schedule regular time to communicate about what is and what is not working. In my experience, the first issues to surface will be safe, simple, less-controversial issues. However, once leaders show they are committed to the process, the real problems will surface and improvements can be made.

This process reinforces a key finding of our crucial conversations research: all families, teams, and organizations have problems. The difference between the good and the great is how rapidly and respectfully problems are resolved.

Best Wishes,
Al

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Al Switzler

Al Switzler is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Al has delivered engaging keynotes for an impressive list of clientele including AT&T, Xerox, IBM, and Sprint. Al’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

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