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How you can use better communication to improve operational performance

01 Jun, 2020 Annual communication plans, Communication campaigns, Internal communication, PR planning, strategy, budgeting

Poor workplace communication is a big cause of company inefficiencies

A “stunning majority” of US managers said they are often uncomfortable communicating with their employees, according to a Harvard Business Review article discussing workplace communication, following an online survey conducted by Harris Poll for Interact. The poll found an astonishing 69% of managers are often uncomfortable when communicating in general with their employees, as shown in the chart below. “More than a third (37%) said they are uncomfortable having to give direct feedback about their employees’ performance if they think the employee might respond negatively to the feedback,” the 2016 poll findings showed. Also:

“The survey results also showed that many managers are uncomfortable with becoming vulnerable, recognizing achievements, delivering the ‘company line,’ giving clear directions, crediting others with having good ideas, speaking face to face, and having difficult feedback conversations in general.”

Image: Harvard Business Review, March 2016

Barriers to successful internal communication

Line managers are perceived as a major weakness in the organizational communication chain. Poor line manager communication skills were rated in the top 3 barriers in the Gatehouse State of the Sector report in 2020. But also a problem is the fact there is a lack of skills within the internal communication (IC) team in some organizations, as shown in the chart below:

Above chart from Gatehouse State of the Sector report, 2020.

Poor line manager communication skills are still a major barrier to successful internal communication, as shown in the above chart, yet only around 40% of IC teams are very involved in providing communication training and/or coaching, as shown by the Gatehouse chart below. At least the IC role seems to have become more active between 2015 and 2020, rising from 26% to around 40% in 2020.

Above chart from Gatehouse State of the Sector report, 2020.

Poor communication is also the key reason why project plans fail. According to project management experts Dow and Taylor in 2008 in their Project Management Communications Bible, communication problems represent 90% of the reasons why projects fail. This view is supported by other project management experts.

And poor interdepartmental communication is notorious as the reason for major inefficiencies in many companies around the world.

Communication skills every manager needs

1. Immediate solutions

In internal and external recruitment drives, as well as promotion interviews, employers seem to take for granted an applicant for a manager position has good communication skills, so interview panels never really check on this. I have seen it for myself as an employer. Organizations will assume managers have these communication skills, and know how to recognize employee performance and address performance issues. But few managers have actually received formal training in management – many are promoted up through the ranks and simply don’t have the knowledge, skills or ability to communicate effectively. Therefore, employers should provide training to all new managers to strengthen their communication skills on an ongoing basis.

How do you know if a manager is a poor communicator? Look for these signs coming from their area:

  • Decreased employee productivity
  • Resistance to change
  • A high turnover rate
  • A greater need for discipline.

Providing talking points helps managers

In addition, when there is an organization-wide message for managers to convey to their direct reports, IC staff can help by providing materials such as talking points, PowerPoint slides, FAQs, process instructions, background notes and other material to make it easier and less stressful for managers to share the information.

2. In-depth development of managers’ communication skills

Expert US IC consultant, Alison Davis, says in a 2019 Inc. article that managers need to build on 4 fundamental sets of communication to be successful:

  1. Listening
  2. Delivering information
  3. Responding
  4. Communicating verbally.

Collective/team skills are needed for managers to be able to lead groups more effectively and work as a team in both formal and informal settings. They need to master one-on-one communication skills as well knowing how to facilitate effective group communication. These collective/team skills are:

  1. Using email
  2. Brainstorming
  3. Negotiation
  4. Resolving conflicts
  5. Communicating goals
  6. Recognizing team members.

Comprehension skills are needed for managers to create understanding for people who work with them – translating messages from leaders and making sure team members understand the company’s strategy. To accomplish this, they need to know how to deliver information, influence beliefs and motivate employees to do their best work. These skills are:

  1. Using storytelling to communicate
  2. Making information relevant
  3. Communicating persuasively
  4. Facilitating dialogue
  5. Writing
  6. Coaching
  7. Presenting.

Process skills help managers to more effectively create and implement business processes that impact company performance. These include:

  1. Making meetings matter
  2. Communicating performance
  3. Interviewing
  4. Dismissing staff

Leadership skills are at the top of the communication skills hierarchy. High-performing managers are expected to demonstrate leadership.  And, because communication is an integral part of being an effective leader, the best managers have extremely strong interpersonal communication skills enabling them to be effective at:

  1. Communicating change
  2. Motivating employees
  3. Building consensus
  4. Getting getting support from senior leaders.

Here’s how communicators can help to improve operational communication

How can you help to find solutions to the manager communication inefficiencies discussed above? And why should you become involved in operational communication? After all, shouldn’t it be an operational responsibility?

The answer is that workplace communication is probably the most important communication of all – because it directly affects profitability, or in the case of government entities, their efficiency and effectiveness. And if operational managers aren’t addressing operational miscommunication problems, then it is legitimate for you as a public relations practitioner to initiate action in everyone’s interests by acting as a catalyst.

Fixing operational miscommunication

Operational miscommunication is widespread. Staff, especially frontline staff, in any workplace encounter daily delays, duplication and unnecessary cost. You would also have observed many daily examples of workplace miscommunication, inadequate communication and unnecessary secretiveness. The bigger the organization, the bigger the waste. Such occurrences take place frequently between departments, and between head office staff and branch staff or field staff.

You may have previously ignored operational communication issues because you thought they didn’t relate directly to your corporate PR job responsibilities, but you can actually get involved and make a difference.

(It is probably wise to first get clearance from your chief executive to follow up such situations; otherwise you may be perceived to be interfering in operational areas, which some people may consider to be outside your responsibility.)

Identify areas where poor communication is hitting the bottom line

In addition to your own observation, you can identify chronic miscommunication by asking frontline staff in interviews and focus groups. Ask them about the problems with potential bottom-line impact that seem to be caused by poor communication.

The next step is to quantify the cost of the operational waste caused by the miscommunication. You can gain approval to observe relevant interdepartmental and operational processes at close range and to talk to the staff about their communication as they work. Even office procedures are worth reviewing due the time they may be wasting – and salaries are being paid for that wasted time.

It would be prudent to seek approval from the relevant managers and supervisors in these activities and to discuss solutions with them. Their experience would be important in assessing the worth of the proposed changes and they are more likely to support the changes if they are part of the solution.

Calculate the cost of the operational inefficiencies

With the help of the local managers or supervisors, you can define each operational problem along with its cost in higher expenses or lost revenue each time it happens. If the main inefficiency is wasted staff time, the cost can be calculated by multiplying the hourly wage or salary rate of the relevant staff (including indirect costs such as employer contributions to their superannuation fund, etc) by the amount of their lost time for each episode.

By multiplying the cost of each episode by the number of times it happens, the total cost can be calculated for a given period of time. Then the cost of solving the problem by applying communication techniques can easily be calculated against the improvements achieved to give a very high rate of return for the PR effort.

All operational improvements resulting from such communication improvements can be quantified in financial terms by simply calculating the dollar impact of increased sales, higher productivity, improved safety, better quality, etc. The improvement can be calculated in terms of lower cost or higher revenue and should be communicated to senior management.

Impressive ROI from using communication to improve operational efficiencies

In every instance, the annual potential improvement would be far greater than the cost of PR staff who may be involved in the project, thus creating a very high and measurable return on investment (ROI). These figures build a strong case for senior management support for the communication function as well as for increased respect from operational management.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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