Communicating with employees

As a manager, you coordinate communication between various sources, convey information, handle requests, and manage feedback. Additionally, you're accountable for facilitating communication between team members to minimize miscommunication, resolve conflicts, and maintain a positive tone.

It’s a constant balancing act; the more tools and strategies you have to do the job, the better. Think back to the first time you handled an argument, gave a negative performance review, or delivered lousy news from a higher-up in the organization. It's excruciating when you don't have a plan, and it's nerve-wracking even when you have a script to follow. 

But over time, you can develop more and more strategies for handling every scenario so that even tricky situations get easier to manage and resolve.

Keep this guide bookmarked so you can refer to it and continually develop your skills.

8 ways to communicate well with employees

You can use hundreds of strategies to improve communications with your team and build communication-centered routines. 

From leading workshops to building stronger team dynamics across your organization, there's no end to the different strategies and best practices you can adopt.

But if you want to improve your unique communication style or refine your communication processes, start with these eight strategies:

1. Set clear expectations from the outset

The following situations can seem simple initially but can quickly get complex. As a manager, you will frequently encounter:

  • new employees joining your team
  • new projects, tasks, and initiatives
  • new KPIs or organizational goals
  • new or changed organizational policies

The best way to set clear expectations is to use multiple communication channels and allow for questions and feedback.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests following these tips to achieve clarity and minimize confusion: 

  • set clear objectives
  • make expectation-setting the first step in every new project or employment relationship
  • require employees to be accountable for their goals (discuss what that looks like)
  • give positive and constructive feedback often
  • motivate your employees
  • make every goal and milestone measurable

2. Give constructive feedback

The reasonably easy part of being a leader is providing frequent positive feedback (publicly and privately praising your team). Still, sometimes, it may be easy to forget, especially when you're under heavy deadlines, so set reminders and make a task list to ensure you reach everyone regularly.

Usually, more challenging is providing critical feedback.

Here are some best practices to make it much easier for everyone:

  • Always give negative feedback in private.
  • When something goes wrong, give feedback quickly and make it as specific as possible.
  • Be solution-oriented. Whether proposing an alternate course of action, suggesting additional training, or reminding about best practices, every piece of critical feedback should be actionable. 
  • Aim for a neutral, respectful tone, especially when delivering a sensitive message.
  • Follow up with positive feedback. If the problem gets resolved, reinforce the change by acknowledging and offering praise. Consider providing positive feedback about another area that is going well, too.

3. Personalize communication

Excellent communication does more than simply transmit information about a specific subject. It becomes part of the workplace culture and sets the tone. As you become more acquainted, you'll learn everyone’s preferred communication styles and can build an atmosphere of psychological safety.

For example, you may have an employee who will ask you for casual updates in the breakroom and immediately start using the new information. 

Conversely, you may have an employee who always confirms the details through instant messaging so they can refer back to the details as they refine their approach.

You'll have passive communicators, assertive communicators, and even over-communicators. Try to learn about and accommodate these preferences as much as possible.

You may send group messages such as group emails or a message on a Slack channel, and those won't be individualized. 

But if you're sending individual notes, personalize them. Use their preferred name, make the information relevant to the recipient, and follow up with them to ensure everything is well understood.

4. Create lines of communication with distributed teams in mind

In today's hybrid work environments, you don't want to stay limited to just one channel.

In-person meetings and sharing during in-office conversations create an automatic barrier that can disengage remote team members and leave them continuously one step behind.

You'll also find that some employees are more responsive through chats, commenting on project management platforms, via email, or in person. Work to share equal amounts of information across all of these channels.

You might broaden your communication by including living documents and quick video how-tos. 

The more you communicate the same message consistently and make it accessible in various formats, the more likely you’ll be an effective communicator.

5. Provide a consistent message and check in to make sure your message isn't confusing

However, extensive communication across different channels and audiences can lead to one core issue: inconsistency. Your messages might change as you acquire more updated information; details and dates change across every project, and you may not remember to update each employee individually. This oversight can leave employees feeling confused or behind the times. Here are some suggestions to address the issue of inconsistent messaging in the workplace:

  1. Centralize communication channels
  2. Create a single source of truth
  3. Appoint a communication lead
  4. Establish a communication schedule
  5. Use version control for shared documents
  6. Encourage feedback and questions
  7. Provide training on effective communication

Implementing these strategies can help ensure clear, consistent, and effective workplace communication, minimize confusion, and keep everyone informed.

6. Make training part of your standard operations

Consider a typical workplace scenario where an employee has learned a multi-step process but remains uncertain about some details: they navigate the task using trial and error, waiting for feedback, and may feel unsure even months later. However, they may hesitate to ask for clarification, assuming it's too late, and carry on with the hope that their approach is sufficient.

This situation is challenging for all parties involved. The manager or team lead is unaware that work is getting done correctly and is oblivious to the stress their direct report is experiencing.

The employee is not having a positive experience, and anyone they train or advise may inherit the same confusion. No one is winning in this scenario. 

You can solve this by having open communication channels and doing your best to ensure employees can ask questions at any time. But there's no way to ensure every employee is comfortable asking every question or even knows what to ask. 

Giving your employees quick refreshers over tasks, an in-depth overview of new processes, and training modules over specific sequences should be part of your communication playbook. Here's why:

  • you can assess their skills and give positive or constructive feedback as needed.
  • employees have their questions answered without even asking them.
  • uncover misconceptions or uncertainties amongst themselves and raise them as general questions.

Over time, you can also refine the training by clearing up frequently reappearing questions and errors. This two-way communication helps build trust and confidence in the process, their ability to do the job, and in you.

7. Research how to communicate changes 

Experimentation and adhering to general best practices are often effective solutions but won’t always provide the answers you need.

Don't invent your own approach when a significant communication need is approaching (layoffs, mergers, new products, and policy changes). Instead, look up tried-and-true methods and follow known processes. 

For example, if you're laying off employees or you know a layoff is coming, it's best to follow a template—it's even better if your HR team gives you an approved template.

Consider announcements and communication that you’ve had to share in the past (or received) in which the wording has legal implications, may impact a specific person’s livelihood, or has significant financial consequences for a department within the company. 

Start proactively identifying these circumstances to upskill and become an advanced-level communicator. When you foresee them, don't wing it. Look up information about handling the situation, and ask an HR manager (or your manager) for help navigating the situation.

8. Try to catch your mistakes and proactively correct them

One of the best strategies for improving is reflecting on your communication

Keep in mind that making mistakes is inevitable. Everyone occasionally makes email typos, forgets to share information, or uploads the wrong resource. 

More complex mistakes worth investigating and attending to might include:

  • having a poor reaction to addressing a workplace issue (such as responding in frustration or initially blowing off a complaint),
  • explaining things in a way that makes sense to you (without confirming the message is understood), 
  • or getting noticeably annoyed when people don't seem to be listening.

Start scheduling time in your week to reflect on how you've been communicating with your employees. 

Take note of positive examples of effective communication, new strategies you've tried (and their results), mistakes or ineffective communications, and things you want to try over the next day or week. 

Taking this balanced approach is like giving honest feedback: you don't want to ignore the good and want actionable solutions to the bad.

For all the mistakes you reflect on, take steps to correct each one. 

In practice, this might look like: 

  • sending an email to correct inaccurate details (if you haven't already), 
  • testing a new approach to communicating key messages, 
  • and even apologizing for not responding correctly to a question or concern.
    This exercise makes you a better communicator. But it's also essential to setting communication norms overall—your team will trust you more if you apologize, fix mistakes, and get employee feedback instead of bypassing errors.

Why is successfully communicating with employees so important?

At its core, communicating makes everyone feel heard, valued, and connected. When communication is strong and effective, it leads to higher job satisfaction, higher productivity, and stronger relationships. 

Think of an instance when you didn't receive clear instructions or expectations for a task. You may have had to ask for clarity multiple times or assumed you understood the task only to find out you were wrong. 

These misunderstandings may have left you feeling confused, frustrated, or doing the wrong thing. Miscommunication can sow the seeds for poor relationships or lead to hours of wasted effort. But successful communication turns all those negatives into positives. 

Communicating clearly and being receptive to questions minimizes confusion. Multiple communication channels reduce misunderstanding and make information more accessible to everyone involved. People are happier and more willing to listen.

Here are four of the biggest reasons to prioritize improving your communication skills:

1. Resolving workplace conflicts

Workplace conflicts are inevitable. Some of the most common ones you'll encounter are miscommunications about task expectations, work style conflicts, and personality conflicts. As someone in a leadership position, your immediate response to the conflict will make all the difference. 

Consider:

  • Task-based conflicts: if someone has misunderstood the task or didn't perform the job properly, there's a problem. Your baseline response should check for understanding, clarify, and offer additional training.
  • Cross-functional conflicts: when teams work cross-functionally, problems may arise from conflicting goals. Employees need to know you will support them, help clarify competing goals and priorities, and help them succeed. In doing so, you earn their trust and demonstrate positive communication skills they can use in other situations.
  • Work style and personality conflicts: work style and personality conflicts are often closely related. Every person has different ways of interacting and communicating. Some like detail and take time to make decisions, while others are more intuitive and go with their gut. These various styles influence the way they work. Conflict arises when these communication styles are not understood. As a leader, understanding your own style and those on your team helps communication flow. 

2. Improving company culture and engagement

Of course, communicating with employees isn't just beneficial because you can mitigate harms and conflicts. It's also a valuable tool for making the workplace better.

With the right communication strategies, you can:

  • immediately make new hires and transfers feel like a welcome part of the team
  • create a culture of respectfully sharing ideas, feedback, and chitchat
  • empower your team members to discuss potential improvements without feeling at risk of penalties
  • build relationships with individual employees and the team as a whole
  • make everyone feel more included and involved, particularly in hybrid work environments

3. Increasing productivity through in-person and digital communication

Ultimately, everything feeds back into productivity, and in-person and digital communications are crucial in optimizing productivity. The key is understanding which communication types work best for different use cases—great leaders go even further to understand what communication styles work best for different employees.

Consider these examples:

  • In-person: one-on-ones can foster a more natural environment and allow for authentic communication. Managers and leaders can better express themselves through non-verbal cues, and there’s more relationship-building.
  • Digital: sharing information and updates often works best through digital channels. It ensures everyone receives the same information, and employees can refer to it repeatedly instead of working from memory. Even more dynamic digital channels like instant messaging apps allow users to see the most updated information while accessing the history.

4. Building your own leadership skills

Whether you're just starting your career phase as a leader or have years of managing experience, deliberately building your deck of communication strategies doesn't just benefit your team and your organization. It also benefits you. When you research and experiment with new communication styles, you're growing your skills, opening the door to new opportunities.

Taking steps like understanding the nitty-gritty of how digital communication systems work, taking the reins at regular team meetings or speaking opportunities, and responding well to feedback regarding your own miscommunications or missed opportunities makes you a better, more versatile leader.

To build your communication skills in specific areas, consider:

  • taking a class on conflict management 
  • seeking a mentor to help you learn best practices for communicating with dispersed teams
  • host a workshop for the whole team on communication styles 
  • ask trusted colleagues for feedback on your communication style

Take a moment to consider which areas of communication growth would benefit you the most, and continue reading with the main focus in mind so you can choose which strategies to employ first or visualize recurring scenarios in your daily work life where specific strategies provide the most value.

Build up your employee communication strategy playbook

The strategies covered here provide a solid foundation for creating a good employee culture and communication environment. 

They can also help you set the stage for further learning and avoiding significant miscommunications.

But imagine if you had access to dozens of nuanced strategies right in your back pocket. 

Build and refine your communication playbook with The Leadership Bundle (featuring Workshop and Team Tactics).

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