AT our workplace, we communicate nearly every moment of the day. Besides written-communication, we have face-to-face meetings; we scowl; we laugh; we talk, we use body language. Yet how many times have you found yourself saying, “Work would be great if it weren't for some of the mean people at the office?”
Yes, we all felt that way from time to time and often, more times than we would like! But people are a fact of life, and they are a fact of life for those who work. And to be effective in both, you have to learn to deal with them effectively as your colleagues are your career neighbours.
Yet many of the world's woes are caused by miscommunication. When you boss looks at her new watch as you are entering the conference room, you presume that she is hinting you should be punctual in future. Or another senior manager's joke about your hairstyle may cause anxiety. Does he like your newly dyed hair or not?
When you talk to your subordinates, there's also always that chance of a misunderstanding. Your choice of words may be unclear. Your voice may be too low or your instructions, too brief. Taking time to pause at meetings will allow others to contribute. In some cultures, silence at meetings provides time for reflection. We learn most when we listen intently to others and most leaders and chief executive officers are good listeners.
Because people work and play in large communities, there is an innate urge to communicate. Notice how many commuters be they taking the LRT, Monorail, Kommuter, bus, in their own car or even on their motorcycles have a handphone to their ears or are sms-ing or BBM-ing furiously. This modern device has given them the freedom of communicating while they are on the move but surrendered their right to privacy and real “connectedness”.
At the workplace, there are three basic communication channels: formal, informal and quasi-formal. The formal communication channel follows the chain of command of top-to-bottom, one level to another, and bottom-to-top. It could be in the form of letters, memos, e-mails, policy statements or announcements.
The informal communication channel does not follow the chain of command. Groups with similar interests form to exchange information. Such networking could arise from members of committees who meet often like the photography club on weekends; it could be incidental meetings at the pantry or lunch partners and cliques who gather at pubs for karaoke and drinks after office hours.
The office grapevine is a communication channel through which office gossip and politics travel at the speed of sound. Rumours travel fastest and they morph into unrecognisable shapes as they travel through this grapevine. Management should keep an ear close to these vines and should come up with bulletins through the Intranet as soon as possible to quell dangerous rumours. We know that a lie, when repeated often enough, sounds true even to the originator!
The informal channel travels fastest as it often skips levels of the hierarchy. Like the Internet, it cannot be totally suppressed or censored. Management can lighten its impact by adopting an open-door policy and creating more opportunities for face-to-face contact with all employees. Decisions and plans that affect employees must be made truly transparent.
Quasi-formal channels of communication are planned communication connections between holders or various positions within the company. They form part of the company's overall management system. Managers have access to information on an authorised basis.
There are usually different levels of access to information in the intranet. For example, a sales executive may not have access to the credit worthiness of an important client but he may access the buying history of this client to prepare a sales strategy.
Official open-house gatherings for festive occasions like Hari Raya which is rolling round soon falls somewhere between informal and quasi-formal channels of communications.
Some of you may remember the short-wave broadcasts that we relied on for information before the advent of television. Back then, the radio programmes often came with noise which we blamed on static. Clear communication should be without noise.
Physical distractions are also barriers to communications. When a supervisor gives instructions in a noisy factory floor during daily briefing sessions, he risks being misunderstood. If necessary, he should write key facts on a notepad or have it flashed on an LCD screen and see if the operators nod their heads to show that they have completely understood the message.
Besides the choice of words, body language speaks very loudly in interpersonal communication. Looking at the listener in the eye will show your sincerity when flattering the person for a job well done. In the experience of many customer service representatives, smiling at a difficult customer helps in creating a cordial customer.
Cultural differences in terms of ethnic and religious backgrounds will cause barriers to communication if one party is insensitive or ignorant of certain cultural norms. Good leaders and managers realise that networking and communication are very important to get a job done well and quickly.
There's a need for socialising among staff during lunch and tea breaks, and at staff functions like festive occasions, sports or family days, teambuilding outings, various business-related retreats and even during a company's corporate responsibility initiatives.
Person with smile
When they know each other better, they communicate and co-operate better. Each is no longer an e-mail address or an extension number. Each is now a person with a face and a smile, and each is an expert in his or her own field.
Regular communication between co-workers facilitate the expressing of feelings and emotions. When employees know each other well, they can point out mistakes without creating offence. It is now since as friendly advice and not nitpicking or bashing.
Absence of feedback is also a barrier to communication. When you send a memo, feedback may come back in a few days or even weeks. An e-mail is slightly better, provided the other party responds quickly. However, the tone of the message is muted. You can't see the body language. What we need happen is two-way communication which includes immediate feedback to the source.
In this case, a face-to-face is best. But if not possible, use the phone. While you can't see the other party, you can note of his or her tone of voice. When you need to reach someone overseas, a video-conference call or via skype with the camera feature switched on would be one-step up the ladder of face-to-face communication.
Garden of goodwill
Like inhabitants of an ant hill, people spend the whole of their waking hours communicating. Successful companies are run by effective communicators. For a healthier and brighter workplace, let's begin to break down the communication barriers and plant a garden of goodwill and sharing in its place.
There's a perfect opportunity coming up the holy month of Ramadan where friends and family can gather for “buka-puasa” daily for an entire month and catch-up over simple kampung delicacies. And later at the month's end, let's celebrate Hari Raya Puasa together by dressing up in our best and visiting our Muslims friends, and taking lots of photos to later upload and share on Facebook.
Just remember to check on what attire and gifts are considered acceptable. If you're not sure, just walk on over to your friendliest colleague's table and ask your career neighbour!
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