Good communication is the mainstay of any relationship. Teams are no exception. In his book “Business @ the Speed of Thought,” Bill Gates compared communication between the individuals and teams that compose a business with the nervous system of the human body.
It’s a good analogy. The nervous system allows us to see, hear, feel, react to stimuli and take action. Without it, we would be a bunch of disconnected organs that just wouldn’t work. Communication allows teams within an organization to become more than the sum of its parts and accomplish more than they could ever do alone.
If you own a company or have a managerial position within your organization, you need to invest in your teams’ communication. It’s not just a nice touchy-feely trick to make sure everyone gets along. Without communication, organizations fall apart.
Here are some practical ways you can improve the communication of your organization’s teams.
1. Clearly specify who the group members are
This is obvious, which is probably why it is so often overlooked. If you want to create a strong team that communicates well, people need to be clear about who is in the team. The researchers behind the book “Senior Leadership Teams” studied over 120 top teams in businesses around the world. They found that although all senior team leaders thought they had set clear team boundaries, when the team members were asked to list who was on the team, less than 10 percent knew.
2. Assign specific roles and tasks for each team member
Who is whom and who does what? Most of the problems that occur in teams happen when team roles are not clearly defined. Glenn H. Varney highlights the importance of having a clear understanding of the roles of each team member in his book “Building Productive Teams.”
He explains: “During any discussion of roles and responsibilities, team members need to clearly know their specific tasks and the areas for which they will be held accountable. Everyone in the team should also know what everyone else is responsible for. This will build strength and mutual support.”
3. Challenge your team by providing purpose and common goals
Humans are natural problem solvers. Nothing inspires us like overcoming an obstacle, meeting a challenge or doing something that has never been done before. When we’re bored and lacking purpose, we become sensitive and argumentative. If we are driven and confident that our work is important, we are more likely to overlook the idiosyncrasies of our teammates and focus on the ultimate goal.
David Logan, professor of management at the University of Southern California, illustrated this point in his 2009 talk at TEDxUSC, Tribal Leadership, where he relates the story of Gallup’s world poll. Logan uses a five-stage framework to describe groups (which he calls tribes) based on what motivates them. According to this framework, Gallup is as a stage-four tribe, a group of people who know they are great and define their success by how much better they are than everybody else.
Gallup was the world’s most respected and influential polling company, and its employees knew it. They were bored. How do you motivate and improve communication in an already successful company?
Easy. You set out to do something that has never been done before. In their case it was designing a world poll that could accurately reflect the views of 95 percent of the population. It seemed impossible, but it was challenging and exciting. And it got everybody — including several Nobel laureates in economics — working together as a team in the pursuit of statistical greatness. (Source)
4. Create an open-door policy for employee communication
Organizations with an open-door policy allow team members to talk with managers and executives about anything without having to worry about negative repercussions. This fosters confidence and trust among team members, reduces rumors and gossip and increases communication levels among employees. No more “us versus them.”
5. Standardize communication procedures
How’s this for scary? In the U.S., more people die from medical errors caused by miscommunication than from accidents, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS or breast cancer. Medical errors are actually ranked fifth in the list of top 10 causes of death in the United States. (Source)
Don’t leave it to chance. Set up clear policies and guidelines that spell out how information must be shared. Train team members on how the new procedures work and set regular briefings to measure their efficiency.
6. Train members to bridge cultural gaps in communication
Having multicultural teams is an advantage, particularly for teams that are part of international organizations. These teams have a deeper knowledge of different product markets, provide culturally sensitive customer service and benefit from 24-hour work rotations. The success of multicultural and global teams makes the future of work evident.
However, multicultural teams also have to overcome communication challenges, which, if not dealt with correctly, could outweigh the benefits of cultural diversity. These challenges include differences in communication style, issues with accents and fluency and varying attitudes to authority.
Managers can overcome these challenges by openly acknowledging the cultural gaps and working around them. Either change the structure of the teams, set policies that promote intercultural communication or remove team members who can’t adapt.
A hilarious example of how companies try to bridge cultural gaps was published in a 2013 article in the Telegraph. It includes a glossary that was apparently created by a Dutch company to help its employees understand what British people “really” mean when they talk.
For instance, the glossary explained that when the British say something is “quite good,” they really mean it is a bit disappointing. But if they say it’s “not bad,” they actually think it’s quite good. On the other hand, if they say something is “very interesting,” they really feel it is nonsense. And if they say “I’m sure it’s my fault,” they really mean it’s clearly your fault.
7. Have walking meetings
Sick of endless meetings that do nothing but annoy everyone? Follow the example of Nilofer Merchant, corporate director and author of books on collaboration, and take a walk-and-talk meeting.
Instead of having meetings in fluorescent-lit conference rooms or going to coffee meetings, Merchant takes her team for a walk; she averages 20 to 30 miles a week. According to her, just the act of enjoying nature and actually being outside of the box leads to creative out-of-the-box thinking that facilitates communication and the development of new ideas.
8. Be specific in your objectives
Ambiguity is the black death of team communication (and productivity, for that matter). Communicate in a simple and concise manner and train your team members to do the same. Don’t assume you understand what your team members mean. Rephrase what you think they said and check that you understood correctly. Ask them to do the same when you give them instructions.
Get into the habit of sending along action items on a regular basis or collaborating with to-do apps like Wunderlist or Asana.
9. Facilitate informal meetings
Studies of team communication patterns indicate that team members who socialize and meet outside of formal meetings perform at a higher level than teams who only interact in formal settings.
For instance, a study conducted by researchers at Sociometric Solutions on the performance of teams in a large call center found that the best predictors of a team’s productivity were the energy and engagement that team members displayed in informal settings. The consultants advised the call center manager to arrange the coffee break schedule so that teams took their coffee breaks together instead of separately on the staggered timetable they were using. This allowed team members to socialize away from their workstations. The researchers reported a 20 percent increase in productivity among the lower-performing teams and an overall increase of 8 percent throughout the call center.
10. Choose appropriate forms of communication
Email, collaboration tools like Asana and Basecamp, online meetings with Skype or GoToMeeting, instant messaging — you have a wide selection of mediums to communicate within your team, so choose wisely. What are some tools your team members already use? Do they need to have 24/7 access to their projects? Would a well-managed Google Calendar do just fine?
Email is great for sharing large chunks of information, but it sucks at conveying emotionally charged issues, which can easily be misconstrued in writing. It’s also important to note that an email inbox is so easily clogged up with short correspondences, CCs and forwards that it can ruin productivity.
Phone calls and face-to-face meetings are inefficient methods for sharing information but the best formats for complex and nuanced issues. If you’re managing a large team with a lot of project crossover, it may be wise to adopt a single collaboration tool. On the other hand, if you’ve only got a small team with defined roles and objectives, you can keep it simple with email and Skype.
11. Treat team members as individuals and communicate with them accordingly (that includes you)
Everyone learns (and works!) differently. Get to know your team members and adapt to how they prefer to absorb information. Readers love to receive (and write) long and detailed memos, while listeners may struggle with written memos but are great in conversation. And some people learn best by doing.
This also applies to managers. If you digest information better in conversation, organize regular meetings with your staff. If you are more of a reader, ask your team members to communicate with you primarily through reports.
12. Run your team like an airline crew
In the 1970s and early 1980s, airlines had a very hierarchical and authoritarian crew structure. The system was completely overhauled when it was discovered that 70 percent of commercial flight accidents stemmed from communication failures. Aviation experts at NASA created a new system called Crew Resource Management (CRM), which completely changed how flight crews communicate and interact. CRM is now a requirement for flight crews worldwide.
The new system focused on educating crews on the limitation of human performance and how fatigue, emergencies and work overload affect people. Team members are encouraged to ask questions and share information, and they are assured full immunity when analyzing past errors. Instead of wasting time allocating blame, the system encourages managers to take a non-punitive approach and focus on developing more efficient procedures that will absorb communication errors through redundancy and standardization.
13. Keep teams as small as possible
View your company as a tribe and your teams as family units. In other words, keep your teams small and manageable. Although the ideal number of people is determined by the team’s task and the roles of its members, research shows that teams communicate better and are more productive when they have around 10 members or fewer.
Anything larger than 10 produces a tendency toward social loafing, also known as the Ringelmann effect. The more people you have working in a single team, the more their level of work declines. This tendency stems from the feeling among team members that their individual effort doesn’t matter much within such a large group.
Keeping your teams small will reduce bureaucracy and allow team members to know each other well enough to maximize their talents. It also streamlines communication and keeps your team members engaged.
14. Create an environment where trust can grow
Trust is the glue that holds all social constructs together, from families to companies to national currencies. For effective communication to exist between team members, they have to trust, at least on some level, their colleagues.
Trust develops through time, which is why teams that have been working together the longest are more productive and make fewer mistakes. They can count on their coworkers to produce, and they understand how each member works best. The sooner this trust is instilled, the better.
The bottom line
Nurturing team communication is the most important task of team leaders and company managers. The methods described above will improve communication in your organization and help your teams work harmoniously as a single body.
Contributors: Andrew Latham, Brenda Harjala