helping an employee with bad communication skills

by Ask a Manager on June 21, 2009

A reader writes:

Like you, I work at a nonprofit. I am executive director and have a staff of two great employees.

I have a new employee who always uses a big word when a smaller word would do. I would not say a word except that it sometimes makes it hard to understand what she is trying to ask or tell you, because the larger word is not always the right word. For example, when she left today she told me she would finalize something Monday instead of finish it. I am afraid that it also confuses people when she is talking to them on the phone and explaining how our main program works. It’s a concept a lot of people have a hard time grasping anyway.

The touchy thing is how to get her to be more brief and use shorter words when talking to people on the phone. I do not hear her phone calls unless I happen to walk up to her cubicle as she is talking on the phone, but hear enough to know that she uses large words on the phone as well as in conversation and uses a lot more words than necessary to explain things. It has to confuse people she talks to because it confuses me. Today I walked up as she told one of our board members I had asked her to call and retrieve a credit card number we can use to guarantee a hotel reservation for a conference. I guess one example of always using a larger word would be to say individual rather than person.

I think she may have grown up around a good many country people who did not speak properly and is trying to overcompensate. She is a college graduate. Besides the fact that it is sometimes hard for me to understand what she is asking or telling me, I think it may hold back her career in the long run. We deal with members of the bar and it does help to speak well.

She rarely needs to write many letters that I do not sign before I can correct them and provide feedback because I write my own letters. However, I have been copied on a couple of her emails and they are not clear at all. I was going to tell her that her writing skills are a weakness and send her to a business writing community education class at a local college. I am not old but am amazed at the lack of writing skills people just a few years younger than me lack.

The trick is how to say something without sounding snooty. I grew up in a town smaller than the town she is from so am not coming at this from the perspective of a city person. I have stopped her sometimes when she has said, “I had went” instead of “I went or I had gone” and asked her what her English teacher would say about that in a lighthearted manner while saying that my teacher used to get me all the time for saying ain’t. She is very sweet and a hard worker. I just do not know how to address this without sounding overly picky. I may be overly picky though.

Hmmm. Actually, the examples you gave (“finalize” rather “finish” and “retrieve” rather than “get”) don’t seem all that egregious. “Individual” rather than “person” is a pet peeve of mine, but I’m just not sure you’ve got a major problem on your hands in this area, unless the problem is much worse than these examples imply.

However, since you said that you often have trouble understanding what she means, I’m going to assume that the problem is worse than these examples imply. So I’d address it straightforwardly, by saying something like, “I’ve noticed that you sometimes struggle to communicate what you want to say concisely and clearly, and sometimes it can lead to people being confused about what you’re telling them. For instance, I’ve noticed you tend to pick bigger words when a simpler one might get the point across better. And I’d also like to see you be more vigilant about using correct grammar, in order to present a more professional image to the people we work with. You have lots of potential here, but this is something we need to work on fixing because it’s something that could keep you from accomplishing all you otherwise could.”

Sending her to a business writing class could help things. And since you’ve noticed she has trouble clearly describing how your program works, and that’s something really important that she needs to be able to communicate clearly, work with her directly on that one — helping her to come up with a clear, concise description that she can use every time she needs to answer that question.

I don’t think you need to worry about this being snooty unless you’re secretly feeling snooty about it (in which case it may come across). Instead, you should see this as feedback like any other, and simply be straightforward and direct in giving it. Good luck!

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{ 15 comments }

DrJohnDrozdal June 21, 2009 at 11:59 pm

This situation reminds me of a past coaching client. The board of a nonprofit asked me to coach the executive director after he received 360 feedback that many people left meetings scratching their heads because they had no idea what the ED was saying most of the time. He would say things like, "one of my managers is not tracking with any intensity" which I found out translated to "I have a manager who is missing important details"!

I think your assessment and advice in this case is spot on. That direct communication of the problem supported by specific examples usually works. In my case the ED was not aware of the impact his communication style had on the organization and almost immediately took steps to improve.

Anonymous June 22, 2009 at 12:42 am

Thanks AAM. How to give the feedback was what I was struggling with. I'm not secretly feeling snotty, just not wanting to hurt feelings.

You're right. The examples I gave were not the most egregious. They were just the most recent. This person is such a wonderful person and good worker that I want to give her all the tools she needs to advance.

Anonymous June 22, 2009 at 1:03 am

Although I do believe clear communication is important, I hope that the issues are more severe than the examples provided in this post. Has anyone else ever complained about or been confused by this employee? If not, it sounds like the manager may be the one that needs to brush up on her communication and comprehension skills.

The reader writes, "I am not old but am amazed at the lack of writing skills people just a few years younger than me lack." She seems to be bragging about her superior writing skills, but she failed to proofread her own post. By using the word "lack" twice in the same statement, she created a double negative – implying that younger people *have* writing skills.

This manager is free to counsel her employee, but she should also consider a self assessment.

Anne June 22, 2009 at 6:31 am

Everyone should keep George Orwell's rules for effective writing in mind:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

Charles June 22, 2009 at 2:10 pm

As a trainer (and no, I am not trying to drum up business here!), I'd like to second the idea of a business writing class. There are also classes that help with English grammar in general.

If the writer is afraid of hurt feelings, these classes are a good way to go. Approach this as a benefit for employees to improve themselves. By bringing in someone from outside the organization it might help to mitigate (sorry for the big word!) any hurt feelings.

I would also strongly suggest that everyone attend. It can be surprising at how helpful such classes are to everyone, not just the folks (employee and supervisor)mentioned.

If cost is an issue (and when isn't it? especially at a non-profit) try contacting the local college or university to see if they might offer the "free" resources of a graduate student (s) who might be interested in helping out as part of a class project.

I think it would also be helpful to see how the other employee explains the program. Is there a set description somewhere? If not, why not? Maybe that is something that all the employees can work on when taking the business writing class together.

Anonymous June 22, 2009 at 3:34 pm

I also think that pointing out specific examples of where the employee makes mistakes would help, as she probably doesn't realize she's making them. (For example, I bet she has no idea that "I had went" is grammatically incorrect, so telling her to be more vigilant about grammar isn't necessarily going to fix this problem.)

Perhaps in addition to or instead of a writing class she could be given a list of common grammar mistakes, particularly as they relate to her field/company if possible. There are plenty of words people tend think of as synonyms that are in fact not (retrieve/get, finalize/finish, utilize/use), which it sounds like is the employee's problem.

Joselle June 22, 2009 at 4:26 pm

I agree with Charles that everyone at your organization would be helped by a business communications class. Actually, I felt that some parts of this letter were worded in an unclear way.

It wasn't until I started working as an editor that I realized how much more I could learn about grammar and expressing myself clearly! We can always use some fine-tuning. Also, if the entire organization takes the class, this employee won't feel alienated.

Clare June 22, 2009 at 6:20 pm

… And if you can't afford a business writing course, have a look at the Plain English website. They have a lot of good advice on writing clearly.

class-factotum June 23, 2009 at 1:19 pm

I am curious to know how someone with such bad communication skills got hired in the first place.

RJ June 26, 2009 at 10:06 am

For affordable, effective, training in business writing I recommend contented's online program.

http://www.contented.co.nz/

They're great on web-writing, but good web writing is good business writing. I have read Rachel McAlpine's book and it's excellent. (I have no financial interest in this – I just think it's a good product)

LeaderSkillsTraining June 27, 2009 at 9:24 pm

I think a great leader needs to learn to communicate, inspire and lead by example for his/her employees. If that means helping them with their bad communication skills, then you need to start a mentoring relationship that will benefit both parties.

As John Maxwell says, If you call yourself a leader and no one is following, you are just out for a walk. You can read more about fostering this mentoring relationship in my article Effective Leadership: Mentoring Yourself, Your People and Your Organization, the feature article on my site for April (http://leaderskillstraining.com). Thanks.

Mary Cullen August 7, 2009 at 1:39 pm

As her manager, you would not be "snooty" to help her communicate better. She will be impeded communicating your services to your clients if you do not help her. Just shape your feedback as mentoring, instead of criticism.

Here is an article on the power of short words in business writing: http://blog.instructionalsolutions.com/2009/05/16/power-of-short-words-in-business-writing/. You and she can search our business writing blog for examples and corrections.

I hope this helps!

kate December 30, 2009 at 8:18 pm

What do I do if my Manager is a bad communicator?!
Instead of questions, she says statements and just looks at me.
-please help!

business communication course January 22, 2010 at 5:44 am

Training or personal coaching would be beneficial for that!! It might helping in improving communication skills.

Anonymous April 21, 2010 at 2:21 pm

I have a similar situation, but I have to wonder if a grammar class is really going to really make a difference when you're talking about a 30 something year old who has been communicating this way his whole life. Does anyone have a success story along these lines? Does a class really work?

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