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10 Tips to Develop Effective Workplace Communication Skills


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Has your boss ever treated you unfairly or blamed you for a failure that was beyond your control? Recently, a friend came to me in distress about a critical hand-written memo that he and his colleagues had received from their superior, the manager of a national retail chain store. The chain, formerly a Wall Street darling, had fallen from favor with the failure of the company to renew an annual contract with one of their larger customers. As a result, the stock price had dropped by a third, cash flow had decreased, layoffs were anticipated, and morale was in the dumps. Every employee felt the pressure.

The young assistant, vacillating between resentment and hopelessness, didn’t know how to respond to the three-page memo which listed failure after failure of tasks and expectations that had not been met by the group. The memo concluded with a threat that “things had to change or else,” and that he, the manager, no longer cared about the individuals due to their shortcomings. My friend, torn between quitting for what he believed to be an unfair assessment or staying when further advancement might be delayed or impossible, asked me, “What should I do? Quit or stay there hoping I will not be fired?”

Results-Oriented Communication in the Workplace

All communications have a result. But was the result in this case the one desired by the manager who penned the memo? Business relationships, especially those between superiors and subordinates, are often rocky due to poor communication, a lack or misinterpretation of facts, pressurized environments, and a mutual commitment to success. As in sports and politics, many business errors are unforced. Mole hills become mountains, and mistakes become disasters due to emotions and overreactions.

Research has proven that emotions often overrule intellect, a consequence of having to fight or flee eons before when beasts ate people who were slow to decide whether they were dangerous. Fortunately, most businesses do not have a “kill or be killed” environment – but we’re still conditioned to react to one.

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In this case, the manager’s effort to motivate his employees backfired. Even though there were apparent shortcomings in the store’s appearance and operations that needed to be fixed, the result of the memo was to focus attention on personalities, not performance. While the memo was no doubt cathartic for the manager in the short-term, the long-term impact was a loss of trust and confidence in his ability to lead, an increase in day-to-day tensions between the manager and the other employees, and a likelihood of a significant loss of future potential managers and their accumulated institutional knowledge. How could the manager have handled the situation differently?

Communicating Effectively: The Manager

There are a number of things a manager can do to improve his or her communication skills:

1. Consider the Situation Before Taking Any Action
Our emotions tempt us to make quick decisions based upon superficial evidence which may not reflect the true nature of the problem. The manager assumed that the poor appearance of the store was due to the employees’ lack of effort or attention. He failed to consider that several store employees had been terminated due to the financial situation, while the store’s workload remained the same. Each assistant manager was responsible for more areas with fewer people to do the work.

Furthermore, each assistant had been required to take a pay reduction due to the loss of the large customer, and each was concerned that the customer loss would slow their own promotion to store manager. Though not intended, their effort probably suffered due to their own worries.

2. Gather and Confirm Information Before Making a Decision
We have a tendency to confuse symptoms with disease, and consequently treat the symptom rather than the underlying illness. Technology enables us to capture massive amounts of data and slice and dice it to make it appear any way we want. But data is a representation of the problem, not the problem itself. Observing the work of the assistants and talking and listening to them about the aspects of their job might have led to a different conclusion than the one the manager reached.

Gather Confirm Information

3. Focus on Problems, Not Personalities
The manager’s memo attacked the character of each assistant by implying they were lazy, derelict, or had betrayed him. The implications intensified the emotional context of the memo, overshadowing its factual content and purpose.

The assistants, in response, reacted with emotion without stopping to consider the validity of the facts or attempting to give the manager any explanations. Whenever dealing with any issue that might have emotional content, the “24-Hour Rule” should be in effect: Don’t send any email, message, letter, memo, or report to others until you’ve had a day to reflect upon its content and are sure it communicates the facts and the tone you wish.

4. Manage Individuals, Not Groups
The manager’s memo was directed to everyone and no one. The lack of specificity enabled each recipient to avoid personal responsibility, since each felt his own effort had met expectations. As a consequence, the memo failed to get the desired result and aggravated an already touchy work environment. Group communications are perfect for providing general information, education, and praise; however, they should not be used for individual direction or criticism. Remember, praise in public and criticize in private.

5. Meet Subordinates Face-to-Face
The meaning and intent of written words without the context of a physical presence is often misunderstood, and can lead to confusion and conflict. There is no substitute for looking someone in the eye and seeing their reaction to your conversation to clarify content and assure comprehension and agreement.

Managers often hide behind memos and notes as if their subordinates were robots to be moved into place and programmed. However, successful leaders seek personable commitment and build bridges of trust, mutual respect, and shared experience. Be physically available and “walk the walk,” and let your people know you are with them through the good and the bad.

6. Assign Tasks Directly and Clearly
People work best when they know what is expected of them. Good managers identify the goals and measures in simple, understandable terms, assign responsibility unequivocally, and confirm that the information is understood by those to whom it is directed. Good managers follow up and give corrective input to ensure that each of his subordinates is on the same page and working toward the same objective.

Managers should always remember that no employee takes a job with the expectation that he or she will be overlooked, ignored, or insignificant at work. Employees want to be liked and respected by their peers and proud of their employer. Management’s challenge is to maintain and further develop this employee enthusiasm and commitment, even during times of stress.

Mistakes are part of growing, and falling short and correcting the course are regular occurrences in business and in life. Dealing with subordinates the way you would wish to be dealt with in a similar situation is the best course any manager can take.

Communicating Effectively: The Employee

My friend, the assistant manager, could also learn from this event. His reaction, though understandable, exacerbated the situation needlessly. As a consequence, he and the other assistants suffered from useless worry and wasted time and effort commiserating with each other about the perceived injustice they had experienced. This time and energy could have been better spent addressing the problems of the store and improving customer service. While neither he nor the other assistants could affect the manager’s feelings that led to the memo, their response to it was within their control.

If you are placed in a similar situation, you should:

1. Never Personalize Criticism
Whether you’re giving or receiving criticism, it should be based upon observed actions and results, not intent. It is impossible to know the motivations behind any activity, only the physical actions and outcome of the activity. As a consequence, criticism should be given and accepted unemotionally, considered for its validity and pertinence, and implemented when action is justified.

In other words, don’t be too sensitive or defensive when you receive feedback. Consider the information received as intended to get a different result, not a personal attack.

Never Personalize Criticism

2. Understand the Situation
In this case, the precipitating cause for the criticism was the physical condition and appearance of the store. At other times, constructive criticism is part of a regular employee performance review, designed to give both parties feedback. Use both opportunities to build your relationship and get information. Use a review as an opportunity to receive and give intelligence that might otherwise be missed.

3. Be Understanding
Whenever you receive what you consider to be an unjustified personal attack or criticism, recognize the source and their circumstances before jumping to a conclusion. Unfortunately, people have bad days, and they often respond by assailing others for little or no reason. When heads are cooler and pressures are less, contact the assailant to learn more about the problem and how you can be part of the solution. You may discover that the stimulus for the assault was an overreaction on the sender’s part or had nothing to do with you or your work.

4. Learn From Your Mistakes
Whatever the stage of your career, you can and should continue to learn. Over your working life, you’ll work for and with superiors of varying capabilities and talents. Some you will remember because of their great leadership, while others you’ll remember because they were such poor managers. Even the latter can teach you something.

In this case, my friend learned how he felt when unjustly accused of poor performance. Hopefully, he will remember his feelings before he makes the same mistakes with the people who report to him currently or in the future. Sometimes, the bad examples are more effective than the good.

Final Word

Management and leadership is a learned skill. Effective managers have experience on both sides of the spectrum, taking directions as well as giving them. And the success of a company is directly related to the skill of its managers and their ability to lead employees through difficult and testing times.

By analyzing and being thoughtful in your communications with both your subordinates and superiors, you can better learn how to lead in whatever position you have. In this way, you’ll not only secure your future prospects to rise up your company’s ranks, but you’ll also create a more productive and better working environment for yourself and your colleagues.

What other effective communication tips can you suggest?


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Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.