Effective Communications in the Workplace

In order to be successful within the professional world, young professionals should seek guidance in how to overcome the challenges in how to effectively communicate in the workplace. The Chemists’ Club will provide episodes of dialogues, texts/reading to provide such perspectives

The dialogue script is shown in the following, written by Lew Boxenbaum:

Let’s start with a definition of communications that you probably have never heard before, i.e., “Effective communications is having an impact on the attitudes, behaviors and opinions of your audience”. That doesn’t necessarily mean changing those attitudes, behaviors and opinions. You may just want to reinforce them.

What is revealing about this definition is the obverse version of it, i.e., “If you didn’t have an impact, you didn’t communicate”. It doesn’t matter how many speeches you made, how many policy statements you issued; if you didn’t have an impact, you didn’t communicate.

Let’s look at a common example of this failure to communicate effectively. How many times have you read in the newspaper about a sexual harassment incident in which the reporter asks the company to comment and the answer is: “We have a policy against this type of harassment”. Yes they have a policy, but evidently not everyone believed it, so it was not communicated in a credible and effective way. In other words, you have to do more than use the common communications tools.

Well, how do you communicate a policy like that? Here’s what a client of my consulting firm did to communicate its sexual harassment policy. This was a global consumer product company that was adamant about preserving its favorable image. One day, I was attending some meetings at corporate headquarters and, as I was walking down the hall to my next meeting, I saw the general counsel of the company hurrying up the hall toward me. I said hello and asked him why he was in such a rush. He answered, “I’m late for the seminar on sexual harassment”, and I said, “But you’re the general counsel. What are you doing going to a seminar like that?” His reply floored me. He said, “Everyone in the company goes to each seminar along with the employees, including Bob (the CEO)”. That’s communicating effectively and, of course, they never had an incident of sexual harassment.

That anecdote brings me to the first rule of effective communications. That rule is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson which states, “Your actions are so loud, I can’t hear your words”. It’s the source of the doggerel, “Action speaks louder than words”. Put another way, effective communications is based on what you do, not just what you say. As a matter of fact, our firm had a framed version of Emerson’s quote hanging on the wall of our reception area.

Here’s a real case history of the communications power of taking actions. There was a wire and cable company in upstate New York in which management and the unions were at war. The relationship was so hostile that the company’s finances suffered and it had to be sold. A new chairman took over, and the first thing he did was call a meeting of all the senior management to discuss how to end the hostile environment. The chairman asked each officer what the company should do to change the attitudes of the union members. The suggestions they made were things like putting up banners and flags, starting an employee newspaper and the like. Finally, after all the senior managers had offered their opinions, the chairman turned to the young manager of employee relations who had been invited to the meeting because of his position. His suggestion was to “do away with executive parking privileges.” Everyone laughed at the suggestion except the chairman who asked, “Why?” The manager said that the union members wouldn’t believe anything management said. They had to do something. An action plan was developed, and the employees were deliberately not told why the company was doing these things. After making parking “first come, first served”, the company renovated and improved the lunchroom, modernized the bathrooms and made other improvements. After 2 or 3 months of this, the employees were asking each other what was going on. Finally, the chairman invited the shop stewards to a monthly managers’ meeting and said, “I know you are wondering why we are doing all these things. Well, we want to change our relationship with you, and we knew you wouldn’t believe us unless we demonstrated how serious we are. We would like to work together with you on some projects that will make the business better. Here’s a list of the projects. Why don’t you pick the first one and let’s try working together on it.” The stewards agreed, and they began the work. It took more than 2 years, but the experience of working together changed everyone’s attitudes. It was no longer management vs. labor or blue collar/white collar. Rather, the experience had created a teamwork that everyone liked. However, the union saw their influence over their members diminishing, and they tried to reestablish the hostility. However, the membership didn’t want to go back to the old days, and the union members decertified the union. That wasn’t management’s goal, but it was done. But remember, none of this would have happened if the chairman had not taken the advice of his young manager to take actions in order to influence the union members and get them to try a new way of working.

Another rule to follow in order to achieve effective communication is that you must truly know the attitudes, behaviors and opinions of your audience in order to influence them. Put another way, you can’t make assumptions about the audience, you have to really know the facts. Here’s an example. A major telecommunications company was investing large sums of money getting ready to meet the ISO quality standards. However, they kept failing the early internal audits. The general manager of the division complained to his managers at their monthly meeting that the company had invested $15 million to date, but they were still not meeting the goals. He said the workers were “stupid and didn’t get it”. One of our consultants was at the meeting and asked for a recess while he went down to the factory floor to investigate. When he returned 2 hours later, the meeting was reconvened, and the consultant made the following report: “Your employees aren’t stupid. They just don’t believe you are serious about quality and, based on what they see every day in the factory, they are right to doubt you. The paint is peeling off the walls, the lighting is inadequate, the work flow is not efficient and more”. The general manager asked our consultant what they should do, and he recommended forming work teams composed of both the plant workers and white collar personnel to correct the concerns. As a result of both the teamwork and improvements, the company passed the rigorous ISO audit without any problems.

Let me summarize by repeating the two things you must do in order to achieve effective communications. First, all the usual forms of communications must be reinforced by actions that demonstrate how serious you are. Second, you must know the attitudes, behaviors and opinions of your target audience, and not by making assumptions, no matter how justified those assumptions may seem.

Finally, many of you young professionals may be asking yourselves, “What does this mean to me and my career?” Think about it. If actions speak louder than words, the best thing you can do to promote yourself in the eyes of management is to perform well in every task that you’re given. Job performance is the best route to gaining promotions because your managers are catering to their own best interests when they promote someone they know will do an excellent job.

Bio: After graduating with a B.S. in chemistry, Lew Boxenbaum started his career in sales. He ultimately became Director of Marketing for a polyolefins company before founding his own marketing and communications consulting company which served major corporations in a wide range of industries, including chemicals.