manager communication with employee

Three essential communication skills for improved productivity

Want to get more stuff done? Here’s what it takes.

You just want to get stuff done. That’s what I hear from the technical professionals I work with. Run into a problem? Let’s solve it and move on. These motivated staff are like high performance gears whirring at top speed. Now, imagine those same gears with no lubrication, no grease, no WD-40. Friction increases, sparks fly, and performance declines or stops entirely. 

It’s no different with you and your staff. Each person is a gear, and the gears must mesh with each other to accomplish work and get stuff done. Too often, however, the gears aren’t “greased.” Good communication skills are the grease. Without good communication skills, friction increases between people, personalities conflict, sparks fly, and performance declines. Interpersonal communication skills are the WD-40 in your organization. Strong communication skills enable individual and team performance and allows you to get more stuff done without the friction and sparks. 

Here are the three essential communication skills that you, your staff and team need to grease the gears and keep them humming along. I’ll provide a brief description here and delve more deeply into each in the next three articles. 

Listening skills 

This is the most overlooked but fundamental communication skill. Adam Allen, a principal at Colliers Engineering & Design observes, “Communication is something you can work on like learning to become a better listener and listening intentionally. Seeing other people’s perspectives and understanding where they’re coming from.” Adam is right. The first step in listening is to trulyintend to listen and understand. Stephen Covey advises to seek first to understand, then to be understood. The second step is to use phrases like, “Let me repeat that back to make sure I understand” or “What I hear you saying is.”  These phrases demonstrate that you are sincerely trying to listen, plus, they verify that your understanding is accurate (or not). The person you are listening to has the opportunity to say, “Yes, that’s it” or “No, not exactly.” With these two steps, listening and understanding improve and the gears keep cranking. 

Diffuse tense moments 

The discussion heats up like over-heated gears and tensions rise. This situation can go one of two ways. Tensions escalate, sparks zing around the room and progress grinds to a standstill. Or, tensions settle, rational discussion returns, and progress continues. It takes a generous spritz of WD-40 in the form of communication skill to accomplish the latter. There’s a lot to unpack in a tense moment but there are two actions that are particularly effective. The first is to remain calm. When you are calm it’s more difficult (but not impossible) for the other person to escalate. (This is easier said than done but more on that in an upcoming article.) Second, validate their emotion. Validation is not agreement, but it is acknowledgement. Validation requires calm acknowledgement of the frustration, anger, anxiety, worry or other emotion. Validation connects with the brain of the upset person and helps their nervous system to settle. There’s considerable research behind this technique but suffice it to say that validation is farsuperior to suppression. Suppression sounds like this: You shouldn’t feel that way. You’re getting upset over nothing. Suppression phrases clog up the gears. Validation greases the gears so that rational thought and productivity return.

Resolve hard feelings

A client once told me, “The most common workplace injury is hurt feelings.” When you hear someone say, “I just can’t work with her!” feelings are hurt, friction is high, and gears have ground to a halt. When staff start coming to you asking to change positions or staff just leave for another job, personality conflicts have gummed up the gears. Don’t let these situations fester.

The worst action is to do nothing. By doing nothing, you tacitly accept bad behavior and undermine those who are working productively. It fosters a destructive climate. That said, this skill is the most difficult to learn but it can be learned. Here are basic elements with more to come in future articles: 

  • Identify the behavior (not the label). This is more challenging than it sounds. For example, Alex comes to you and says, “I can’t work with Estelle. She’s micromanaging me.” “Micromanaging” is not the behavior. The behavior is that Estelle is asking for project updates every week. Alex interprets that behavior as micromanaging. You must dig in to discover the behavior that’s at issue.
  • Stay calm. You cannot have a difficult conversation it you are agitated, angry or frustrated. Wait until you are calm.  Really. Wait.
  • Discuss the behavior and how it feels. The discussion formula is: “When you do [behavior], I feel [feeling.] For example, Alex might say to Estelle, “When you ask for a project update every week, I feel that you don’t trust me to manage the project. I feel like you are micromanaging me.” This formula works because the discussion is focused on the behavior (not the person) and feelings are not arguable. They are yours and it’s an honest, real statement.   
  • Be curious about other perspectives. Approach the conversation with a sense of curiosity. There is always another way to view a situation. Be open to that. Alex could say, “This is my perception. Estelle, how do you see it?” 
  • Engage in an open dialog. Now use listening skills to truly understand. Estelle explains that she trusts Alex. It’s just that she needs the information for a weekly brief to her boss.
  • Reach a conclusion and define next steps pertaining to the behavior. They agree that Alex will provide the key items Estelle needs for her report weekly. Additional detail will be provided only in the quarterly updates. They leave the discussion having diffused the hard feelings and with deeper understanding of each other. And the gears are greased and running better than ever. 

If you want to get more stuff done in the office, grease the gears by developing communication skills for you, your staff and team. These skills pay off with higher morale, better retention, and a more pleasant work environment. That’s what makes the gears turn at their fastest.

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