Maybe it’s time you learned to actually communicate at work, right?

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Communication in the workplace is often a train wreck and, aside from salary, it’s probably the №1 negative on most employee survey deals. Maybe the issue is that people lack a list of communication skills?

That’s probably not the issue, but we might still be able to help a few peeps out here. The real issue is that “effective communication” falls into the “soft skills” bucket. To most hard-charging execs, “soft skills” is a synonym for “I cannot see this on a balance sheet, can I?” To be sure: there is some ROI to communicating better at work, but it doesn’t reside on B56 of your quarterly numbers, no. Rather, it’s in how people feel about their relationships, their manager, and the context (“purpose”) assigned to the work. That stuff is why communication matters, but it usually gets lost in the flood of “I need to prove insane amounts of growth.”

What if managers had a better list of communication skills, though? How about we train them on this stuff? Give them a toolkit? Then what could happen? Well, let’s try.

Your list of communication skills commences … now

This is from Stanford, and called “One communication tool you should add to your toolkit.” The author talks about how communication structures are “scaffolding” for messages, meaning there are clear (you’d hope) starting points, transitions, and endings. To that end, the recommendation is that all work communication follows this format:

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what?

Simon Sinek just had a heart attack because this doesn’t start with why, but this flow makes some sense. Let’s do a quick example.

An example of this approach

Your boss is trying to give you some “constructive feedback.” Here is the flow:

What: “You missed a deadline.”

So What: “This is going to make a few other people scramble for this meeting tomorrow.”

Now What: “I’d like you to help these people and also, in the future, attempt not to miss deadlines.”

This is still a stilted conversation — don’t get me wrong there. But here’s what it normally looks/sounds like from a manager:

“Gahhhh you missed a deadline on my urgent priority that’s actually not urgent to anyone and I invented it so that I could seem more relevant but GAHHHH you still missed it and I’m gonna berate you for 17 minutes and BAHHHHH fart noise I’m gonna slap you on a PIP so fast…”

See the difference between Scenario A and Scenario B?

What other items should be on a list of communication skills?

Here’s a few that pop:

  • Regular feedback (maybe even daily!)
  • Set some context
  • Look people in the eye
  • Regularly say back to them something they just said to indicate you are listening
  • Ask about their lives outside of work
  • Respect their time
  • Re-align priorities vs. busy work
  • Ask what you can do for them this week/day
  • Laugh, have fun
  • Be a human being

Management is not intuitive to many people, because you get promoted for bashing targets — and then you suddenly have “direct reports,” and you want to see them bash targets too. Unfortunately, that makes you a micromanager. Meanwhile, your boss — higher up the food chain — is screeching and bellowing at you about growth, and now that’s what you want to see from these peons beneath you. Every managerial skills list and leadership skills list says you should communicate better to get through this mess, but instead we mostly create low-context bullshit processes from hiring through on-boarding through managing through termination. Somehow we call this work, which is probably why Wharton calls it “chimp rape.”

The elephant in this tiny room

Thing we all know but don’t admit: most technological “productivity” tools are actually designed to reduce conversations between managers and employees. A lot of people who become managers are chasing the cheddar. They don’t want to “nurture” some direct report. They want that direct report to hit the eff out of targets to ultimately pad their bonus (the manager’s). We all have friends at work and make some great relationships there, but by and large work is about individual achievement being forced into teams — and that turns a lot of people into selfish pricks very quickly. So it’s hard to see better workplace communication when the basic ways we work — email, once-a-year reviews, etc. — are set up so that managers never have to look a direct report in the eye.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

You can go nuts here talking about remote teams and how commonplace that’s getting, and there’s some validity there. But a remote team manager still has to talk to his people. He still has to make time. There’s a human element we sucked out of management long ago in our race to automate everything for our own productivity, and that’s fairly dicey/lame.

Consider shifting your context

This “what / so what / now what” approach can work simply because it puts some context around priorities, which are an abject joke at most companies. The upper levels care about money, the middle levels care about being seen as relevant, and the lower levels just want to get through a day without plunging their head in the toilet. No one is even speaking the same language (ask a rank-and-file what “CAGR” is, then ask an executive), and that makes your list of communication skills for work hard to get off the ground. But this approach at least roots things in a three-step, logical contextual flow.

What else might you add about a list of communication skills relative to work?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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