Message received?

Hello. Hello. Is anybody there? As managers, we usually communicate best when we are with the people we manage. It’s what we say and how we say it; what we do and how we do it. The problem is we feel more vulnerable when we are face-to-face. We’re exposed. It’s risky.

So you spend an hour writing a memo. But it’s ignored or misinterpreted. You could have said it all in a 10-minute conversation, made sure it was understood, and had immediate feedback, discussion and an agreed decision. You could then have followed up with a brief memo or e-mail to confirm your discussion, note any agreed action, and make your team member feel they are a valued member of staff whom you take time to talk to and whose work and ideas you respect.

We all like to think that, when it comes to communication, we just do what comes naturally. But it may also come naturally to avoid people or issues you’re having problems with.

So go on, have it out with them face to face. In doing so, you will have the full armoury of communication at your disposal. Estimates vary, but it is thought 55 per cent of communication is body language (facial expression, hand movements and so on), 38 per cent is the tone of voice and only 7 percent is the actual words. So by writing to someone, you are disposing of 93 per cent of your ability to put across what you have to say.

The words you choose need to be clear. Remember, English isn’t everyone’s first or even second language. So keep it simple and avoid management-speak. In the 1990s we might have distributed hymn sheets (sometimes the same ones) under blue skies (good for thinking), where we moved goalposts and flagpoles across increasingly uneven playing fields. But let’s dump the jargon and be content (satisfied) with the content (subject matter).

And given the diversity of staff, remember there is no guarantee of shared definitions. If you want people to understand loud and clear, use their words, not yours or those supposedly akin to your position.

This is also the stuff of style – how you present yourself to staff. There are people whose e-mails you open quickly because you know whatever is in there will be friendly and accessible, whereas some you put off because of how they say things and how they make you feel.

However, while face-to-face communication can be the most effective, there are, as ever, pits awaiting your fall. Reports of official inquiries into social care tragedies are littered with workers lamenting “They didn’t tell me that,” alongside others proclaiming, “I definitely told them that.”

So bear in mind that:

  • Anyone can mishear what you say, but not realise it.
  • Anyone can interpret what you say as meaning something different from what you intended.
  • People might forget what you say and then remember it differently.
  • What you said might have caused confusion, and if you’re an important person, no one might have challenged you or asked for clarification.
  • People might disagree with what you say, so not act on it rather than engage in dialogue.
  • The message might not be heard because of other things happening in a person’s life.

Some simple steps to help communication are:

  • Get people to inform you of their understanding of what’s been said or agreed.
  • Try to speak clearly and plainly.
  • Make a written record that can be referred to later.
  • Be clear about the reasons for the communication – this helps everyone to understand the importance they need to attach to it.

Communication is sharing and understanding, and if staff feel not listened to, then a recruitment and retention crisis can’t be far behind.

Be the manager who says: “Have you got half an hour this morning? The new guidance has arrived, so let’s have coffee and go through it to see what the implications are for us.” Or: “Can you come into my office for a moment to talk about Mandy Allen’s care?” Face-to-face, friendly and efficient.

So, let this be your guide: find out about your target audience, work out what it is you want them to know, and then work out how to say, write or present it. Message received?

John Burton and Sheena Doyle are independent consultants; Kathryn Stone is director of Voice UK. Additional material by Vijay Patel, independent consultant, voluntary sector; and Janet Seden, lecturer, Open University.

“When I was…….

…managing a large care home, people saw me writing review notes. I invited them to read them and we talked about the issues. Staff and residents began to realise they were influencing this review. Within weeks the big, awful issues of the place were being talked about openly. The published review was all the more powerful for the collective ownership, anger, hope and determination it expressed.” (John Burton)

“…on a training course we had to play a warm-up game, throwing a ball to someone who catches it and who then tells you their name. The facilitator asked one participant why he wasn’t joining in. He explained that he was blind and couldn’t see the ball.” (Kathryn Stone)

“…in social services there were some managers I always listened to and responded to carefully – for others I had a ‘switch-off mentality’: these were usually the jargon-speakers and the memo-senders.” (Janet Seden)

Top tips

  • Every time you feel like writing to someone, ask yourself what you’re avoiding.
  • Effective communication is a two-way thing. It’s as much about listening as about passing on information.
  • For a written piece, ask someone else to read it first – preferably someone who’s not involved – to check it is understandable.

Rubbish tips

  • When one of your team is slacking or misbehaving, send a memo to the team.
  • Don’t waste time with planning or preparation – just do it and move on.
  • Hit them with all the jargon and buzzwords you can muster – show them who’s the boss.

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