What’s one of the biggest challenges facing your team? If you're inclined to say, “Without a doubt, communication!” you aren’t alone.
No matter how large or small your team is, or whether you're heading a remote or co-located team, keeping everybody on the same page is an undeniable challenge.
Some updates get dropped into an instant message. Other notes are shared as comments within your project management software. Instructions or feedback may be jotted down in an email. A crucial direction is mentioned in passing at a hallway chat.
If your head is spinning, we don’t blame you. With so many different methods for communicating today, keeping things streamlined can be nearly impossible. The worst part is when your team fails to communicate effectively—it can result in some dire consequences for you and your company.
Staying in the Loop: The Importance of Effective Communication
“Communication is equally critical for the two-person company as it is for the 3,000-person corporation,” explains Chad Reid, Director of Communications at JotForm, who also holds a master’s degree in communication from Purdue University. “But, without the processes in place at any level, it can cause catastrophic breakdowns for your company.”
To start with, there’s the general mayhem and confusion that a lack of clear communication causes. When people on your team feel out of the loop, it results in frustration—as well as missed deadlines, unnecessary conflict between team members, and lower quality work.
There’s also the wasted time that inefficient communication causes. A business consisting of 100 employees spends an average of 17 hours each week clarifying communication, according to one study. Those wasted hours affect your bottom line. That downtime equates to a staggering $528,443 every single year.
Now let’s evaluate how streamlined communication can actually improve things for your business as a whole.
Companies that have highly effective communication practices enjoy 47% higher total returns to shareholders than those who aren’t so effective at internal communication, according to Towers Watson, a human resources consulting company.
Moreover, companies with highly effective communicators are 3.5 times more likely to outperform their peers, according to a Towers Watson Communication ROI study.
As a leader, you’re responsible for embodying the kind of communication you expect of your entire team. Itay Talgam discusses the importance of this in his 21-minute TED Talk entitled “Lead Like the Great Conductors.”
How to Keep Your Team Communication Streamlined
Needless to say, lackluster communication is something that your company simply can’t afford to deal with.
So what can you do to take your team communication to the next level—whether you have two direct reports or 20? Here are some strategies to implement:
1. Make Roles Explicitly Clear
“Before you start a project, make sure everyone actually knows what their role is on that project,” advises Kristen Donnelly, PhD, Executive Vice President of Abbey Research. “That may sound elementary, but don’t assume that if you tell someone they’re the ‘point person’ that they think it means what you think it means.”
When you have a new project in the works, you need to make it painfully obvious to everybody involved who is responsible for what—whether that’s done through private conversations, a team meeting, or even creating a written roster that lists everyone’s assigned duties.
There’s also one more thing you should make obvious: Who the key decision maker is. When there are questions or issues, who has the final say on what happens next?
Taking these steps right off the bat proactively mitigates any mixed messages, while also shutting down that dreaded phrase “That’s not my job!”
“Achieving this clarity can require a set of uncomfortable private conversations, but without it, the likelihood of crossed wires only grows,” adds Eve MacKnight, Lead Consultant at Little Owl.
2. Create a Company Glossary
While you may think you already communicate clearly, that’s likely not the case. Every company develops its own slang or shared understanding—which can be overwhelming for new hires or people from outside departments to comprehend.
For that reason, consider creating a company glossary that everyone on your team can use to understand frequently used words.
“You can explain, ‘When we say customer service, here is what we mean,’ or, ‘When we say accountability, here is what we mean,'” shares Donnelly. “Creating this lexicon will also force current staff to come to a better understanding.”
TIP: While this glossary can serve a great purpose, it’s still best if you stay away from as much complex jargon as possible. Only 21% of organizations state that they keep their communication simple and jargon-free. So, by making an effort to be straightforward, you’ll already be ahead of most other companies!
3. Assign a Point Person
“Communication can be unwieldy if requests aren’t directed to a point person in charge of distributing responsibility,” says Reid.
Especially when you have a lot of cooks in the kitchen, it’s helpful to assign one point person who should be in the loop on every single message relevant to that particular project or task.
Perhaps it makes sense to have the point person be the project manager. Or maybe it’s the department head. You have flexibility in terms of who fills those shoes. The important thing is to designate someone who can serve as the key point of contact for all of those little updates that might otherwise slip through the cracks.
You can think of it as a funnel. When you have so many messages coming from all different sources, it’s helpful to have them all trickle down to one organized and knowledgeable person who can sort through them.
4. Put Things in Writing
The spoken word can be powerful. But sometimes there’s no replacement for putting things in writing.
“Don't be afraid to write things down,” says Donnelly. “Brainstorming is fantastic and necessary. But, do not leave a meeting without written action items that are agreed upon.”
Having those things documented serves one major purpose: It adds clarity for your team. There’s no refuting that something was assigned or discussed if it was written down and then distributed to every single participant following that conversation.
TIP: Even better, have each of your team members write down the action items for themselves at the close of a meeting. A study from Indiana University found that the areas of the brain associated with learning worked much better when children wrote down words, rather than study them from a whiteboard.
When in Wrike, get your team on the same Wrike task so you can all take notes during a meeting and clarify each person's action items in black and white. It's an easy way to ensure everybody is on the same page.
More meeting tips using Wrike are here: How to Lead Effective Weekly Meetings Using Wrike.
5. Use Confirming Phrases
Even when everyone on your team makes an effort to actively listen, confusion still occurs. People might extract the incorrect meaning or take things out of context. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.
This is why using confirming phrases after somebody speaks can help ensure you both have the same understanding.
Some examples of confirming phrases:
- “To recap, we should…”
- “What I just heard was…”
- “Let me make sure I understand…”
By taking that extra minute or two to repeat the highlights of the things you just heard, you’ll confirm your shared understanding—and, thus, save tons of time and frustration in the long run.
TIP: In addition to writing down action steps, it’s good to cap off each meeting by reading them aloud. This confirms understanding and responsibilities across your entire team, while also giving everyone adequate opportunity to ask necessary questions.
6. Set Rules for Your Communication Channels
From instant messaging to emails to your project management software, your team has a ton of communication methods at their fingertips. There’s nothing wrong with that! However, you should make the purpose for each explicitly clear.
“Set clear rules of the road for each channel, and hold team members accountable for adhering to the road rules,” explains MacKnight.
For example, maybe instant messages should be reserved for urgent requests and casual updates, while your project management software needs to be used for all comments and questions that are specifically related to that project.
You have flexibility here to find what works best for your team. But once you have the purpose of each of your communication channels established, document them (remember the importance of writing things down?) so your entire team has a reference and then monitor those rules to ensure they’re being followed.
See a message in the wrong place? Point it out so that the whole team develops an understanding of what methods work best for each type of communication.
How Will You Improve Team Communication?
Streamlining the communication of your team—regardless of size—is challenging, but it’s also non-negotiable.
In order to avoid unnecessary conflict, increase engagement and productivity, and generally crank out higher quality work, it’s imperative that your team members are all on the same page.
Fortunately, there are tactics that you can put to work to keep everybody in the loop. These include:
- Clearly defining roles within your team
- Creating a company glossary
- Assigning a point person for specific projects
- Documenting spoken conversations
- Using confirming phrases
- Setting specific rules for your communication channels
“All of this stuff is so straightforward and yet completely impossible some days,” concludes Donnelly. “The way to ‘fix it’ is to be prepared to dig through the ugly truths of how you really function rather than how you wish you did, and then have honest conversations about how to move forward. Like I said, straightforward but never simple.”