Talk to us! The importance of good communication

‘You cannot not communicate.’ So said the communication theorist, psychotherapist and sociologist Paul Watzlawick. Wherever you are and whoever you are dealing with, the things you say, the things you don’t say and the way in which you listen all tell a story.

Needless to say, this is as relevant in the workplace as it is in any other interaction we may have.

A smartphone with its messaging apps displayed onscreen

The workplace used to be fairly simple when it came to communication. You’d get letters, memorandums, phone calls and face-to-face conversations. However, communication at work has proliferated. The typical employee now has emails, a chatbot, video calls, instant messaging apps, texts and social media to contend with as well as the more traditional communication methods. That said, I’m not sure when I last saw a memorandum!

With the proliferation of communication methods available, it’s easy to think that we’ve got workplace communication down to a fine art. But the truth is somewhat different. The messages we communicate, even when we’re silent can have a greater impact on our employees than we might like to think.

In this blog I cover:

  • The key types of messages.
  • Examples of good and poor communication.
  • A simple, yet often forgotten way to better understand your employees.

The key types of messages

The art of effective communication requires us to understand the difference between different messages. In this instance, I’m going to focus on telling, asking and listening.

By telling someone something, you instruct them. This is an order and is essentially one-way communication.

When you ask, you seek a response from someone. This can create a more collaborative workplace.

Listening is about more than hearing the words. It’s about reading and engaging with one another’s emotions.

If you tell without listening, you create a situation where people feel you don’t value their opinion. This can lead to employees feeling that they are being bullied.

If you tell while listening, you can make a great difference to the final outcome. Taking the team member’s views into account can result in a better outcome for productivity and wellbeing resulting in commercial success. By building a trusting relationship, employees feel more able to ask questions when an instruction is given. This is good for the employee and it’s good for business.

a man and a woman collaborating over a piece of work using a whiteboard and coloured pens

An example of poor communication

Poor communication can be disastrous. It leads to people feeling undervalued, a lack of awareness and misinterpretations. Employees may feel isolated which may then result in them withdrawing from their colleagues. This can lead to uncertainty which in turn may lead to anxiety or depression.

Here’s an example from my own experience.

An employee met with his HR manager due to difficulties with his manager – a Financial Director. Their relationship was one-sided as his manager wouldn’t allow him to ask or offer his views on the implications of what he was being told to do. He started feeling worthless and lost confidence.

HR referred the employee to Occupational Health (OH) who asked him to share the background behind his feelings.

He explained that the director would tell him ‘do this’ and then change instructions a few days later with no explanation. This chopping and changing became regular and the employee was told that he was unable to challenge these instructions. He started to dread meetings with his director, lost his confidence and his drive.

After meeting with OH, the resulting report was shared with HR and the employee’s boss – the Finance Director. HR suggested that the Finance Director and her direct report meet together to discuss ways in which they could work together more effectively, given their interactions were at the root of the employee’s problems.

The employee met with his boss, but this had little effect. This was followed up by the HR manager a little while later. But it was too little too late! The employee left the business. Some months later the Finance Director also left. If only the style of communication had been recognised and addressed earlier, the costly outcome of losing two employees could have been prevented.

When good communication really counts

As the previous example shows, poor communication costs! Although good communication is essential for business success, there are situations where it’s especially important.

Firstly, it’s essential to tailor your communications. No two employees are the same so you can’t take it for granted that they will all have identical communication preferences. Many businesses send out email updates with important information. But this fails to account for the employee with an overflowing inbox or the employee who is on the road and checks their emails every other day. As well as email, you could share an update in a shared workspace, put posters near the watercooler or updates in a chatroom channel. You should also encourage managers to talk to their employees about relevant updates.

If employees are off work on sick leave, it’s crucial to keep the lines of communication open. Line managers can check in regularly to see how the employee is doing and give them updates on what’s going on in the business. This can help alleviate worry about returning to the workplace, help employees feel connected and may even result in a smoother return. Managers can also consider this approach on other forms of leave such as parental or bereavement leave.

two people having a video call

During crises, such as Covid-19, communication becomes especially important. Keeping communication clear and regular communication will be reassuring for your workforce as they deal with the uncertainty. You may need to adapt communication to use other methods as in the case of covid, where regularly communicating with remote workers was essential.

If someone is living alone, older or vulnerable in some way, communication becomes even more essential. For some employees, their colleagues may be one of their only sources of social interaction. This makes checking in with that individual doubly important.

The simplest way to better understand your employees. Ask “how are you?”

If someone has a visible problem – such as an arm in a sling or a limp – it’s easy to ask them how they’re getting on. But if the problem is less visible but still apparent, we tend to shy away.

Where a person suddenly becomes silent or angry and the root cause isn’t immediately obvious, it’s easier to walk past them. There’s real skill in knowing how to communicate with people on such occasions.

One of my favourite questions is ‘how are you feeling today?’. It makes a difference to the way people feel at work. They’re more likely to feel relaxed and valued in the workplace if their line manager or HR manager asks after their wellbeing. But be careful, as well as ask, you must listen.

One particular example comes to mind:

An employee whose husband died was given bereavement leave. When she returned to work after some weeks her performance was found to be consistently poor. She was eventually referred to Occupational Health by HR.

I asked her to tell me what happened.

She had been out one evening with a friend leaving her husband at home. On her return home she said goodnight to her husband and went up to bed.

The next morning, she woke up to find her husband dead in his chair.

On asking her “was your husband buried or cremated” she broke down and told me, “That is the trouble. He was cremated and his ashes are in an urn and I haven’t done anything with them!”

So I asked her how she’d like to celebrate his life at which point she got into the flow and told me how she would do this. She even got into the detail, telling me that she would wear a blue dress – a colour her husband liked – and get her hair highlighted.

One month after the celebration of her husband’s life, she was back at work performing as well as she did before her husband’s death.

Taking time to ask in more detail how she was feeling after her husband had died, and checking in with occasional phone calls might have prevented the lengthy period of absence and poor performance.

A sensing line manager could have discussed the death and bereavement issue if they had had some training on this subject, but it’s too often ignored. We don’t talk about death after all!

 Let’s talk!

Good communication is a skill which everyone can learn. If you’d like to talk about how I may be able to help you or others in your organisation, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.



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Dr Doreen Miller

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