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Advice from the “Communication Problem Solver”

By: Shari Lifland
Last updated 9/16/2010

In business, a breakdown in communication can have a profound impact on morale, efficiency, and—ultimately—the bottom line. We spoke to Nannette Rundle Carroll, author of The Communication Problem Solver: Simple Tools and Techniques for Busy Managers about today’s most common workplace communication problems and how to solve them.

AMA: In your experience, what is the #1 communication problem in today’s workplace?
Nannette Rundle Carroll:  One of the most pervasive problems is judging—labeling people in a negative light. For example: calling someone lazy, a bully, or assuming he doesn’t care about the work. When I recently conducted a webinar on communication at AMA, judging and how to break the judging habit generated the most discussion among the participants.

Judging is detrimental both to the person being judged and the person doing the judging. The judged employee is categorized into a vague, negative generalization that he can’t escape. This damages his reputation and erodes his ability to perform well. It also causes tension, because problems remain unclarified and unresolved.

The person doing the judging suffers because he has not defined the problem in observable, factual terms, so he cannot solve it. Characterizing people negatively creates feelings of isolation and contributes to a lack of teamwork, trust, and credibility.

AMA: How can managers break the judging habit?
NRC:  The first step is to acknowledge the judgment and to understand that it is opinion, not fact. Next, identify observable behaviors—what specifically did you see and hear that led you to label the person in that way? Finally, discuss the situation with the person and brainstorm solutions so you can clear up misunderstandings and move forward.

Managers, too, may be judged negatively by their boss, direct reports, and/or peers. What can they do to escape the label? They can reverse engineer the steps above by asking questions. For example:

  • First, give it context—“Boss, I want us to work well together so I’d like to clear something up.”
  • Explain, “I heard (or sense) that you think I have a bad attitude. I don’t intend to convey that perception and would like to be perceived as working well with people towards our goals. It would really help me if you could give me some specifics of what I have said or done so that I can change that.”
  • Listen without arguing. Then ask for suggestions about what behaviors would convey a better perception. Brainstorm solutions together.

AMA: In your book, you stress the importance of relationships at work. What can a manager do to build and maintain strong relationships with direct reports, senior managers and between team members?
NRC: The idea of a relationship with coworkers intimidates some managers because they think it implies friendship or getting close to someone. Some may not want to invest time in a relationship or get too personal with coworkers. In reality, a relationship does not have to be personal. Work relationships grow when people are respectful, friendly, and courteous while working together to achieve common goals. It may or may not involve any personal self-disclosure and doesn’t require socializing or friendship (although many people choose that).

One bit of advice for any manager who wants to improve relationships with her direct reports: simply become more visibly available. Walk around the office; spend a bit more time in the lunch or coffee room. Provide opportunities for your people to approach you in an informal way.

Above all, remember that relationships are built on credibility. When people respect our expertise and can rely on us to deliver what we say we will, we build strong work relationships.

AMA: Telecommuting, either part- or full-time, is slowly becoming more commonplace. How can managers and employees keep the lines of communication open long distance?
NRC: Even if everyone spoke the same language and shared the same culture, working at a distance would be a challenge due to lack of face-to-face contact. We lose the visual cues of body language and facial expressions.

I recommend speaking to virtual team members at least once a week for a progress update. In person is best, followed by video conferencing or voice-to-voice. Keep a regular meeting time—even if the meeting is brief. In between weekly meetings, if an e-mail thread shows evidence that a misunderstanding is brewing, pick up the phone.

AMA: Have you seen an increase in any particular communication problem due to the economic downturn?
NRC: Due to downsizing, many people find themselves with an increased workload. To save time, they may become over-reliant on technology, using e-mail and texting instead of speaking face-to-face or over the phone. Naturally, relationships suffer when we have less frequent human interaction. People may receive partial information or information out of context, because misunderstandings abound with e-mail. This can cause hard feelings and negative judging, can damage work relationships, and can create productivity issues. For example, project managers have great project tools, but they still need to talk to team members to clarify expectations and progress.

AMA: Any final thoughts?
NRC: We discussed judging as perhaps the #1 communication problem in today’s workplace. But another key issue is silence. Fear silences people. Recent studies show that a majority of people working on projects think their projects may be at risk, yet they are afraid to express their concerns.

The antidote to fear and silence is trust. When trust exists, a manager can assign work and discuss performance issues with greater comfort. Regular discussions and feedback sessions help everyone determine the best direction for the work while also providing opportunities for growth and relationship building.

For more information visit www.communicate2go.com.

Read a free excerpt from Nannette Rundle Carroll’s book The Communication Problem Solver: Simple Tools and Techniques for Busy Managers.

About the Author(s)

Shari Lifland Shari Lifland is an editor and writer for American Management Association.  She is editor of the e-newsletters "Moving Ahead," "Management Update," and "Administrative Excellence" and manages content for the Members-only section of AMA's Website.