“Intelligence, knowledge or experience are important and might get you a job, but strong communication skills are what will get you promoted.” ~Mireille Guiliano~
At a performance review meeting, Sean’s boss told him he needed to improve his communication skills. “You express yourself articulately, and you’re assertive, but you can go further,” his boss told him. His boss went on to describe a range of communication-related skills that would help Sean become a stronger leader, some of which Sean had never thought about developing.
Articles on business communication skills often address the importance of being assertive in the workplace. In some cases, however, they don’t discuss the “hidden” skills that are essential for strong communication, like the ability to view the world from someone else’s point of view. When you’re equipped with a wide array of communication skills, you’ll be poised to succeed in all realms of business. Here are the six ways to improve business communication skills.
- Practice good office politics.
Participating in office politics is essential, and that’s not a bad thing. Done well, it means influencing company culture and building your influence. Showing loyalty to your boss, honing strong relationships with allies, and networking with different circles of people in your organization are all examples of participating well in office politics. It all comes down to being respected and noticed by others, and showing respect and appreciation in turn, in order to grow your influence with them.
- Communicate across functions.
Strong communications across different organizational areas is essential for maximizing productivity. Your team isn’t going it alone—you depend on all the other teams in your organization, and if you’re not communicating closely, your relationships, processes, and outcomes are suffering. Get to know the people in other areas of the organization, and become a liaison between these different areas of business to improve the flow of communication. Along with members of these other teams, work to define your joint goals and establish how to coordinate your efforts.
- Learn to understand different working styles and personalities.
Learning how others think and work is an essential part of leadership. During one-on-one sessions with people you manage, ask them how they learn and work best. Some employees might appreciate receiving an email about an important topic the day before a meeting, rather than being asked their opinion on the spot, for instance. Navigating these differences is a vital task of a leader, and it will greatly improve the effectiveness of the team.
- Become a pro at conflict resolution.
Conflict resolution may not be fun, but that’s why it’s such an in-demand skill. Learn to master conflicts by addressing their root causes, helping everyone to feel heard, and asking for solutions from everyone who’s invested in the issue. As you guide both parties toward compromise, you’ll gain greater respect and trust from them both, enhancing your relationships and reputation in turn.
- Be assertive yet humble.
Assertiveness is one of those obvious business skills that articles on communication in the workplace tend to tout, and it’s definitely an important quality of a leader. However, the strongest leaders balance assertiveness with vulnerability. They know how to ask for feedback on their performance, be transparent about issues that affect everyone, and gain the trust of others by putting them at ease.
- Use virtual communication effectively.
Resisting using virtual communication will prove a major hindrance in today’s workplace. Virtual communication offers a way of making the playing field more equitable for people who may have trouble physically getting to work for long hours each day, like parents of young children. It also makes working with contract staff more viable over long distances. Plus, job training and coaching can often be done via virtual communication for a lower cost. Get comfortable with virtual communication, and many doors will open.
“As you build strong business communication skills, you’ll enhance cooperation and relationship-building throughout your team,” Sean’s boss said. For the remainder of their meeting, Sean’s boss helped him craft a plan for improving in these areas. He also gave him business articles to read on improving communication skills. Sean left the session energized and enthusiastic about making the changes, knowing his boss was priming him for taking on greater responsibility down the road.
Are you working to improve your business communication skills? For specific guidance, support and tips on becoming a master communicator at work, you can contact Joel for executive coaching or visit his hundreds of articles.
What business skills have you focused on developing? How did they improve your leadership? Share your stories here.
“Entrepreneurs as ‘soloists’ will be replaced by orchestras playing a stronger, more credible tune.” ~Steve Case~
Tamara felt her department was too isolated from the rest of the organization. As she stepped into a higher-level managerial position, she talked with her mentor about how to change this situation. Her mentor advised her to develop a cross-functional team of people who worked together in close communication.
A cross-functional workforce is composed of people from a variety of departments and levels of hierarchy. If, like Tamara, you manage people from an array of departments—or if you aspire to step into such a position—start leveraging a cross-functional workforce to increase your team’s effectiveness.
- Understand the big picture.
Building a strong cross-functional network will help you better understand how your organization functions. You’ll learn how to improve workflow processes because you’ll know exactly what should happen during every step. That knowledge will make you a better project manager. Others will come to see you as a go-to person when they have questions about project flow or other departments’ functions. As you share your knowledge, everyone will come to understand the big picture better.
- Improve your interpersonal communication.
Creating a cross-functional workforce means developing strong communication with different departments and areas of the organization. You’ll find that the functioning of the whole company improves as you learn to communicate fluidly across the organization. By checking in regularly with people across the company, you’ll make yourself and your team more approachable. When they have questions or concerns, they’ll bring them to you right away rather than letting them fester. Likewise, other employees will learn to reach out to colleagues from other departments when they need to ask clarifying questions. They’ll become supportive allies to one another rather than working in isolation, or worse, in competition. Model that attitude by being a humble, approachable leader who always seeks to improve through feedback, and others will follow suit.
- Clearly understand responsibilities.
When you understand the big picture and are communicating effectively, you’ll be able to ensure that everyone understands their role and responsibilities. Because you have thorough knowledge of how a particular department functions and what it does, you’ll know what each employee is supposed to be doing. You’ll therefore be able to communicate your expectations clearly, and to more accurately evaluate employees’ performance.
- Building workplace morale.
When the whole workplace feels like a team and you’ve built a strong level of trust between departments, morale will skyrocket. The end goal will be at the forefront of people’s minds every day; you’ll all have more of a “big picture” mentality. Plus, you’ll all celebrate each other’s successes and see how they contribute to the success of the whole group, boosting motivation. As your increased effectiveness leads to more big successes, morale will only continue to rise.
To build a workforce that is truly cross-functional, Tamara’s mentor advised her and her team, to have one-on-one conversations with people who have key roles or managerial positions in different areas of the organization. “Have lunch with them, and ask them to explain what they do. Show respect and admiration for what their department does,” she urged. “You’ll develop strong rapports with these key players, and that will grow your visibility and influence, helping you reach reach greater heights of success.”
If you’ve started working toward building a cross-functional team, but want more pointers, contact Joel for executive coaching. He’ll be able to provide effective strategies to growing these relationships.
What benefits have you experienced from building cross-functional relationships? Share your stories here on how your teams, across the organization, learned to work together more effectively.
“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” ~Warren Bennis~
Client Ethan asked:
A lot of misunderstandings and hurt feelings are cropping up in my organization. Crucial information often doesn’t get shared; people often feel their voices aren’t heard. As an aspiring leader, I know I need to find ways to fix the situation. What should I do?
Coach Joel answers:
Ethan, these issues all come down to improving your communication skills. Taking initiative to address them is one of the most important things you can do to prove your leadership abilities. Building your influence and leading your organization to success means improving your organizational culture by overcoming these hurdles.
- Communication channels are undefined.
When it’s not clear whom people should talk to about particular types of issues, communication is likely to break down. Your workplace needs to have well-defined channels of communication for handling projects, and managers need to set the tone for communicating well. Each person needs to know which coworker to talk with about a particular issue. Additionally, you need a clear path of communication between departments, meaning communication roles must be clear. One member of your team might be in charge of liaising with the art director regarding a package design, for instance. A clear path of communication is important for handling complaints, too. Employees need to know whom to speak with, and that person needs to know what to do with the information.
- Silos keep information from reaching all stakeholders.
Similarly, with poor communication, information can get stuck in silos. It might just be that departments need help understanding how to communicate better, but there are often deeper underlying issues. It’s not just that people don’t know how to communicate—it’s that they’re not motivated to communicate. Departments may have even come to view one another as competitors because they’ve lost sight of their common goal. Inspiring people to believe in a common vision is the first step toward correcting the problem, and it’s one of the most important ways of demonstrating leadership and getting noticed. Holding collaborative meetings with people from various departments will help people stay motivated to work toward their common goal.
- Communication flows only in a top-down path.
When communication flows only from the top down, employees can feel frustrated, knowing they have a great deal of input that isn’t being used. You might not have control over how higher-up executives handle communication, but you can voice your feedback about it if you have an ally who might be receptive. Furthermore, you can work to encourage the people you supervise to share feedback and suggestions with you. An idea box is a great way to encourage people to speak up when they see something that could be improved. As you grow your influence, your leadership effectiveness will become apparent to other managers and executives, and they might emulate your approach.
- Views are unrepresented.
When holding meetings, ask yourself if you should include particular individuals from other areas of the organization who might have a stake in the topic. For instance, if another department might have valuable input about the project your team is discussing, ask a representative to join in or share input by email. Making people feel heard is just as important as gaining their valuable input. You’ll be building stronger relationships by taking these steps.
- Unclear terminology leads to lack of understanding.
When people use jargon frequently, others might not understand their meaning—or they might think they understand, but get it wrong. It’s important to ask clarifying questions when people use technical terms or ambiguous language. One department might have an internal understanding of a slang term it uses, while another department might get a different impression of the meaning. Likewise, if people use convoluted language, paraphrase what they said and verify that you understand what they meant. It’s much better to spend a moment clarifying than spending hours or days trying to repair the damage of a huge misunderstanding. As a leader, look out for the moments when team members might misinterpret something, and clarify the issue even when you believe you understand it correctly.
As you improve communication in the workplace, your team will see its productivity rise, in part because their job satisfaction will increase. Be sure to voice appreciation for employees’ efforts to strengthen communication. This will keep them motivated to continue making a conscious effort to improve. Your leadership and influence will grow along with the effectiveness of your team.
Are communication hurdles compromising your team’s performance, order Joel’s book Difficult Conversations for the entire team. If a conflict needs specific support, contact him for executive coaching.
Have you worked to overcome these types of communication challenges? What worked, and what didn’t? Share your experiences here.
“Be strong, be fearless, be beautiful. And believe that anything is possible when you have the right people there to support you.” ~Misty Copeland~
Client Taylor Asks:
I asked my employees for honest feedback on my performance, and a few of them said I’m too authoritative in the way I speak to them. How can I show them I value their intelligence and ideas?
Coach Joel Answers:
When David Steiner became CEO of Waste Management, Inc., he received an invaluable piece of advice from one of his directors, as I describe in my book Getting Ahead. The director told him that one phrase will help him shift the organizational culture more than any other: “I need your help.” These are the four most powerful leadership words you can say, and you should say them often.
Why “I need your help”? When you’re in a position of power, you may have the authority to impose your ideas on others, but that’s no way to motivate them. In fact, that’s one of the hallmarks of an ineffective manager. Asking for help in generating solutions, and plans for implementing them, is a surefire way to make employees more invested in their work. They want the chance to think creatively, helping you devise a strategy. It places you on more equal footing, showing respect for their intelligence. Moreover, it brings a broader range of ideas and expertise to the table. If you start using this phrase regularly, you’ll have shifted your whole leadership approach, and your people will take notice.
When should you use this phrase? Here are a few examples:
- When you need a new strategy.
Maybe you need a new way of gaining market advantage because competitors have moved in. The best ideas don’t necessarily come from higher-ups—they might come from your team. Bring all creative minds into dialogue with each other for a brainstorming session. Saying, “I need your help” will make them feel empowered to think outside of the box to bring forth potential solutions. Encourage them to throw out any ideas that come to mind, without judging them, and watch ideas merge and evolve.
- When you need to improve workplace culture.
When your workplace culture needs to improve, initiate change by saying “I need your help.” This strategy works much better than reprimanding people. Even if you need to critique an employee’s behavior or issue a warning, saying “I need your help to create a more harmonious workplace for everyone” can still work wonders. If you want to keep the employee on your team, this phrase will help him to hear you and modify his behavior.
- When the company’s in transition.
If the company is about to go through a change, don’t keep employees in the dark about it. Rather, solicit their ideas for managing the change or devising innovative solutions. Instill the feeling of “we’re all in this together,” and employees will take pride in helping see the change through. “I need your help” are four powerful words that will boost your leadership of any challenging situation. Change might still be scary, but when you make everyone feel invested in creating a plan and seeing it through, it will be a growing experience for all of you.
- When you need help with a particular task.
Use this phrase when you need help with the small things as well as the big things. Rather than ordering an employee to do something, say, “I need your help.” Whether you need a particular type of expertise, or you just need someone to complete a report, using these words shows you see the employee as an equal. You value her time, knowing she has other important obligations. When you make requests in this manner, employees will probably be happy to fulfill them, and it will foster a culture of gratitude.
Use these four powerful words, and your leadership skills will shine. Employees will see you as a great boss who truly cares about them. After all, these aren’t just words—they convey an attitude of appreciation and respect, which will help you get the most from your team. Remember, the best leaders know how to be humble, a quality that this phrase embodies.
Use these leadership words frequently over the next week, and keep a journal of your interactions. Email Joel for more tips on how to show your people how much you respect and value them.
How did people react when you used these leadership words? Share your experiences here.
“Leadership is intentional influence.” ~Michael McKinney~
Client Brianna asks:
People often talk about the importance of influencing internal and external stakeholders. What makes a successful influencer, in your eyes?
Coach Joel answers:
Successful influencers do these five things better than anyone else. These five strategies foster strong relationships that make others see those influencers as people they can rely on. If you succeed in putting these five things into practice in your daily work, you’re just about guaranteed to build influence in your workplace.
- Build strong partnerships. A strong influencer is able to create partnerships across all business units, thereby developing a wider base of support and cooperation. When you develop these strong relationships, you’ll help the whole organization to function more effectively—and you’ll be seen as someone who guides others in developing relationships that benefit the whole group.
- Leverage allies. Your allies will help support your ideas and accomplish the tasks that have been deemed important. Successful influencers cultivate alliances with people across the company who are in positions of leadership or who have strong social capital. Influencers stay in close communication with these allies and have the confidence to ask for what they want. They know how to clearly articulate their needs for support to these allies, spelling out how their request will benefit the whole organization.
- Cause others to rely on them. Because successful influencers shape group decisions and change outcomes for the better, people appreciate their conﬁdence and know they can depend on them. Higher-ups as well as people they supervise come to them for advice and ideas. To get higher-ups to rely on them, successful influencers might become experts in areas that most people aren’t knowledgeable in, filling in important gaps. They might also demonstrate their ability to creatively solve problems that everyone else avoids. The people they supervise feel empowered by talking with them, because influencers give them guidance in developing and implementing their own ideas.
- Lead up. When building your influence within your workplace, don’t just work to lead those who are below you on the hierarchy. Leadership isn’t about having a title. Influencers establish mutual respect with people above them, who seek out and listen to their opinions, ideas, and insights as a result. Voice your input to these key players with confidence, using your existing relationships with key players to reach new ones. For instance, if you have a suggestion for improving a product development strategy, present it to an advocate and ask for help in connecting with decision-makers. Carefully craft your rationale for your ideas and suggestions before speaking with those further up the hierarchy, and voice your input to these key players with confidence.
- Gain results from others. Strong influencers know how to keep others motivated, lighting a fire under them to succeed. That means making them believe they can achieve their goals. They also work to create a positive environment that makes employees happy to come to work. As you become a person who gets results from others, you’ll inspire them to keep taking on more ambitious tasks that positively impact the company’s bottom line.
When you master these five qualities, you’ll have become a successful leader in your organization. You don’t need to be in a formal leadership position to hone and utilize these qualities. As you naturally assume more of an informal leadership role, a work promotion is likely to follow. Don’t wait until someone else gives you the green light—begin stepping into a leadership position now, by developing these key skills. Your influence in the workplace will keep building as you grow more practiced in all of these areas.
Try focusing on one of these five qualities each week. Email Joel to discuss your progress and how you can continue improving.
Have you tried any of these strategies? What were your results?