#433  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 11          November 1999

Rules of Management Communication
by Karl Walinskas

Mr. Walinskas is a professional engineer, speaker and freelance writer in Dallas, Pennsylvania, who owns and operates a communications development company, The Speaking Connection www.SpeakingConnection.com. 

Two days ago I came home from the office feeling invigorated and alive.  Five minutes talking with my wife changed all that.  Don’t misunderstand, it’s not that I don’t like talking with my wife.  She was upset because of what happened to her at work, and after hearing about it, I was a bit miffed as well. 

My wife works at a part-salary, part-commission job selling advertising for a local publication.  She left for the office that day anticipating the biggest commission check of her career.  Before going to work that morning, she was salivating like one of Pavlov’s famous pooches.  Upon picking up her check, she found it a bit light and did some investigating.  As it turned out, the big guy had changed the commission plan overnight without telling the sales associates.  Commissions for year-long ad campaigns would now be paid at the end of the year, when all money was collected, rather than now, when the ads were sold.  Now be careful, I am not judging the validity of this commission plan.  There may be perfectly valid reasons for the change, but think about the way it was handled.  Nobody who was affected was told in advance that this would happen or was even under consideration. 

Rule Number One

“Wait a second, there, big mouth,” you may be thinking, “if you tell the salespeople this kind of stuff in advance, they’ll just whine and cry and try to stop it from happening.”  You’re probably right.  Let me ask you this: How much work do you think anybody at the publication got done the day they found out about the commission plan changes?  I’m not just talking about the salespeople.  If I spent an hour talking about it eight or nine hours after the fact, you can bet that anybody within earshot of a peeved salesperson got their fill too--on company time.  What’s worse, now your workforce feels betrayed, and may even sabotage the company effort to work off their frustrations.  You’ve traded a small, manageable problem for a major headache.  You decide. 

This brings up rule number one.  Whether you’re dealing with salespeople, floor-sweepers or doctors, anytime you as a manager need to make a decision that affects people’s lives, tell them well in advance.  At work, this usually affects the pocketbook or the employee’s benefits.

Oh, by the way, this isn’t an isolated example.  I consulted with a company of over six hundred employees where management changed the long-standing Christmas bonus plan without telling the minions until they received their checks.  Many people received hundreds less than they were expecting, most of which was already spent on Uncle Ed’s new tie and a fruitcake for cousin Zelda.  Hundreds of people were not working while complaining about this breach of faith, and I, an hourly paid consultant, spent extra time hearing about this event rather than working on the project I was hired for.

Another communication problem that will come back to bite managers and supervisors is miscommunication, being misinterpreted.  When I want my dog to do something, I give her simple, one-syllable commands.  “Bear, sit!” “Bear, stay!”  “Bear, come!”  Extra words lead to miscommunication.  Some managers use this approach when asking employees to do things, thinking that the less said the better.  Problem:  human beings aren’t dogs.  We shower daily, don’t have tails to wag, and don’t blindly obey.  The human mind is always striving to find the answer to the never-ending  question, “Why?”  People can’t help it; it’s in our nature.  Look at what happened in the Vietnam War, where soldiers--the most disciplined, regimented, and order-following breed of American citizen--often struggled because they were unsure of their mission, their purpose.

Rule Number Two

A second rule of communication then, for those in authority, is to provide sufficient information for the employee to answer, “Why?”  Many organizations are now considering a relatively new philosophy called Open Book Management for this very reason.  Lack of information often causes more problems than divulging those deep, dark company secrets.  Let the worker, complaining about his last meager pay raise, see where the company’s money went, that expenses may have risen and that profits were down.  This will drive an improvement in performance more often than not.  Even if your business is completely ethical you may have good reasons not to share everything with employees; just provide them with enough information that allows them to draw similar conclusions if they were in your position.

Rule Number Three

What about non-verbal communication?  I’m not talking here about tone of voice and hand gestures, although that stuff is critical for effective communication.  I’m referring to a more global aspect of management communication that I’ll simply call congruency.  This is where you walk the talk of your message--the third rule.  Oh how important this is to implementing those pesky, new management initiatives.  Employees will notice in seconds if your actions belie your message.  The boss who tries to convince his people how important dedication to the job is and then is seen leaving the office at noon every Friday in the summer carrying his golf clubs is not very persuasive or effective.  This doesn’t mean you have to do everything your employees do, after all, you’re the boss.  You manage; they produce.  It simply means that you absolutely must show that if it’s important enough for them to do, it’s important enough for you to support.

I’ve outlined three things that managers should be aware of when communicating with subordinates.  First, if your message affects people where they live and breathe, get it out sooner rather than later.  Second, if you want workers to follow through on the stuff you give them to do, provide the reason why.  Lastly, act congruently with the message that you project.

Be aware of these three rules of thumb and you’ll go a long way to sailing a smoother, more effective company ship.

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