my team needs better communication — where do I start?

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • People on your team frequently have no idea what anyone else is working on.
  • People are duplicating efforts without realizing it.
  • Opportunities for efficiencies or collaboration are regularly missed.
  • People don’t understand the value of other people’s work.
  • Priorities aren’t aligned across your team.
  • Information isn’t being shared.

 

If you guiltily recognized you or your staff on this list, you’ve got a communication problem on your team.

Typically, when managers realize their team has a communication problem, their first attempt to fix the problem is to institute more meetings – often group meetings for people to share what they’re working on and provide updates. Sometimes this works. But other times, it just puts more meeting on people’s calendar without getting at the root causes of the problem. In some contexts, sure, team meetings can help– but they’re probably not a cure-all. Here are four other key things to think about trying as well.

* As the manager of the team, remember that you’re at the hub of the wheel. You have a big picture perspective and are uniquely suited to being able to spot opportunities where people should be sharing information or collaborating. You’re also ideally positioned to spot it when people have differing assessments of a situation or are on different pages about how to advance a project, and to flag it and suggest they connect about it. Consider it part of your role to keep your eyes open for these opportunities.

* Figure out where the pain points are.“ We need better communication” is dauntingly broad. What, specifically, has been causing problems? Pick the two to three biggest areas that are causing issues and focus there. For instance, if you decide that the biggest issue is that people aren’t getting updates about clients that would be useful in their work, you might get people’s buy-in on a new protocol for what kinds of notes to include in your client database and create norms around what updates should be shared more proactively, with whom, and by when.

* Make sure people are using tools that play well with others. If you’ve got a staff member whose favorite tool sits on her desktop and only her desktop, with no one else having access to it, you may need to step and help figure out how to give other people access to any important info it contains. It’s not unreasonable to ask people to use tools that integrate well with others and that are accessible to people who could leverage the information within them.

* Enlist your team in solving the problem. You might have loads of good ideas for how to address the problem, but your team will almost certainly have ideas that you haven’t thought of. After all, they’re probably the ones feeling the impact of communication issues more than you are. Lay out the problems you see for them and ask for their input. At a minimum, their insights will help shape the solutions you develop – but it’s very possible that they’ll come up with even better solutions if given the chance.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Amber Rose

    I’m so frustrated with this. Example from lately: sales guy gets email asking for technical info. Email gets forwarded verbatim to office manager, who sends it on to me with “please help this customer.” I, having no idea what this is all about because I am admin not tech, tear my hair out for two hours before running into sales guy by chance and asking him about it.

    “Oh, you just need to send him drawings,” says sales guy. “I guess I thought someone would know what to do about this.”

    … YOU knew! Couldn’t you have put one friggin sentence in your email about it?!

    /explodes

    Sorry. Previous job may have been toxic to the extreme but at least everyone talked to everyone else. Current job is wonderful but I don’t understand this resistance to explaining things.

    1. Ad Astra

      I’m trying to train myself to ask more clarifying questions to help navigate situations like this. I know not everyone is a great communicator, but TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU NEED THEM TO DO is a lesson everyone needs to learn.

      1. Amber Rose

        I did ask the office manager but got an “I don’t know” back. The sales guys are out of the office all the time. It’s all very frustrating.

        I’m debating holding a safety meeting about the importance of using yout words. I know Alison says meetings are not the answer but I have to do these anyway and I have limited options.

    2. AMG

      You know, I just realized how much my group operates like this. The assumption is that there will be a follow-up discussion (whether that’s a quick IM or a series of meetings) to determine what the need is once it’s forwarded to the correct person. I wonder if others in your office are making that assumption as well.

      1. Amber Rose

        Probably not, honestly. The actual chain of events was something like:

        SG forwards to Office Manager, assuming she will deal with it.

        OM forwards to me.

        I ask her wtf and get a blank look and “try asking Fergus about it.”

        Fergus gives long, technical answer that I don’t follow at all.

        I run into SG who has been gone (outside sales) and ask if he really wants me to try and transcribe Fergus’ answer.

        “No, he was the wrong person to talk to. Didn’t OM tell you [all this info]? Sounds like she failed to communicate.”

        No, because she didn’t know any of that. Also my brain just turned to smoke and drifted away at the hypocrisy there.

        “Well, go talk to Jasper, and get drawings. I’m gone now bye. ”

        Then Jasper sent me to Ford who dealt with it finally.

        So. Ridiculous.

  2. Michael

    Some things that have helped my team of programmers (taken from Scrum):

    Everyday morning stand-up meeting. Timeboxed to 15 minutes. Answer 3 questions: What did I do yesterday, what am I doing today, and what are my road blocks. Discussion and problem solving is saved for afterwards and done with a smaller group.

    End of our 2 week cycle: Retrospective. What went well, what didn’t go well, and should we change (or do better).

    This has also let us embrace a culture of change and experiment. Sometimes we know that some issue needs to be addressed but we don’t know how to address it. Now we can come up with a few ideas, try one (or two) out for a few weeks and see if it helps. If it doesn’t then we drop it and try something else without faulting anyone. If it helps then we see if it needs tweaking and move forward.

    1. Ad Astra

      With your morning meetings, could you save time by sharing the same information in some kind of app or document? Or is there a reason it’s better to do that meeting face-to-face?

      I do a different kind of work, but I still wish my department’s meetings spent less time on status updates and more time on troubleshooting and collaboration.

      1. Kyrielle

        When I worked on a team doing agile, those meetings were really 15 minutes – with about 12 people giving updates. Just that quick, not into details. “Working on a fix for bug X, making good progress and expect to finish that today and start on the design for feature Y, no roadblocks.” “Implementing feature Z, continuing tomorrow; stuck on issue Q – who would be a good resource?” (Someone is named or sticks their hand up. Move on.)

        The only interruptions were if someone heard another person about to start on a bug or feature that they had expertise on (or knew wasn’t a bug, or knew there was an issue with, or were also slated to start on it). They’d raise that issue and discussion would happen after.

        We got a new boss who didn’t like those meetings, and at first tried to move them to a shared document. No one. Paid any. Attention to what others were doing. Almost without exception. And roadblocks raised via email either cluttered up a lot of inboxes, or went just to the manager who might not even realize another team member had useful expertise.

        New manager eventually brought the meetings back, but ran them differently, with more details on the work being done, exhaustive laundry lists of things, digressions, and solving some things during the meeting instead of after – suddenly they took 30-45 minutes and were tedious.

        It’s very much in how you do it, but a super-fast status shouldn’t take long per person and everything else goes to only the people who need to be involved, after the meeting.

        1. Sammie

          I miss agile so much. CurrentJob could use it–but they won’t because all the lazy will be revealed.

        2. MashaKasha

          I want this so much. Right now our team hits every point on the checklist, with the addition of “people make changes that cancel each other out, without knowing it”. We’ve had quick status meetings both here and at OldJob and they helped tremendously. What killed these meetings at OldJob was a new manager who liked to talk, and enabled the teammates that liked to talk. Suddenly instead of a 15-minute meeting that was straight and to the point, we were having one-hour stand-up meetings about nothing. I think whoever runs these meetings, has to have balls of steel and not let anyone hijack a meeting, even if that person is higher up on the ladder. I don’t see these meetings working effectively otherwise.

          I think the reason why we stopped doing those at current job is that we were merged with a team that’s located in another state, and has a few people working remotely from their homes altogether. I still think we’d benefit greatly from some kind of a brief status meeting even once a week. But my guess is that no one knows how to implement one in these new conditions.

          I hadn’t realized how bad our communication had become, until last weekend I skyped my older son (he’s a developer who’s worked at a silicon valley startup before resigning to do his own thing, and has a lot of interest in my work) and he asked me basic questions about how the company is doing – are we growing, are we losing people, how did we do in the last quarter… and I had no earthly idea. I realize these things are beyond a 15-minute status meeting, but, if we had those on the regular, I’m sure we’d have some idea of where the company or our department is heading. And maybe some guys in the inner circle still do. As for me, I don’t have a clue. I’m currently working up the courage to ask our management about this.

      2. MashaKasha

        Kyrielle is right, no one’s going to open the app or read the document. Especially in a deadline-driven environment, there will always be things that have to be done asap, that will get in the way of anyone ever opening the document and reading through that wall of text.

  3. Just somebody

    How do I help my team communicate better if I’m not a manager? My job is actually in communications, and I was brought in to help the company improve its communication as a whole. So far, that means posting a lot of updates on our company intranet, drafting some letters, doing social media and some other external stuff — but it’s all tasks I would classify as “mass” communication, for lack of a better term.

    What I’m finding, though, is that our company — and perhaps my deparment in particular — is a mess when it comes to interpersonal communication. People want to know about every little thing that could possibly affect them, while also never making their expectations clear.

    Case in point: Last week, my coworker received a calendar invite for a meeting with a vendor that was scheduled for today, and she accepted it. The invitation only said “Meeting with Percival” with a time and location. Monday rolls around and our boss’s boss stops by coworker’s desk to ask, “So, what do you have prepared for tomorrow’s meeting?” Uhh… what was she supposed to have prepared? In this case, she had enough time to get something together, but it’s obviously frustrating to constantly feel like you’re falling short of expectations you didn’t even know about.

    I have almost no background in interpersonal or organizational communications, or whatever kind of communications this is. How do I help?

      1. Just somebody

        With the meeting specifically, there was no reason to believe any additional context was needed. A vendor who my coworker had met several times was in town and they were going to meet with several relevant people in the department; sounds pretty standard. I can’t remember what it turned out the Big Boss was expecting, but I think it was something quite specific.

        I’m a big believer in asking clarifying questions, but what I’m finding in this office is I never know when I need more information until it’s too late. And my coworker, who’s been here longer than I have, expresses the same frustration.

    1. wannabefreelancer

      Oh! This happens to me, too. It’s infuriating and I keep falling short of expectations that were never laid out. You are not alone.

    2. No more nonesense

      OMG, we need to start a support group for this. I have even asked specifically what my boss wants for meeting X and she says nothing. Then the DAY OF wants everything. It is so stressful for me and really frustrating knowing that I could do way better work if she had just asked in advance. Instead she just gets whatever I can throw together in five minutes.

  4. Super-anon for this

    Any advice on handling this when you are a vendor that works with an organization like this? Maybe you manage work / deliverables, but not the teams/team members.

  5. Andrea

    I have a boss right now who likes it that way. He prefers us “siloed”. He says he “shields us”. What that means is that we’re not allowed to talk to other members of our team about what we’re working on and often find out that two or three of us are doing the same thing. What he’s doing is pretty crappy and it makes it a more difficult place to work. Can’t really see a way out of it when it’s the boss specifically wanting his staff on a need to know and he’s the only one who needs to know.

    1. MashaKasha

      Wow, that’s terrible. Did he say why? I don’t see any rational reason for doing this, except some weird office-politics, divide-and-conquer thing he wants to do. It is so counterproductive. At least usually when that happens, people have the common sense to make it look like an accident, rather than coming right out and saying “I want you guys siloed”. They know it’ll make them look bad if they admit they’re doing this intentionally.

      1. Andrea

        I really can’t fathom a good business reason behind it. This guy is a micro-manager to the extreme. I’ve spoken to his boss about this (and other issues) and I don’t see it changing. He’s chased two people off the team with his irrational behavior (they moved on within the company). I’m keeping my eyes open, and my head down.

    2. Michael

      My “team lead” does this and it drives us crazy. It creates a peculiar suffocating feeling that is difficult to describe, but it’s bad enough that one person has left and two others are strongly considering it.

  6. Student

    Ugh, I scored 6 out of 6 on AAM’s bullet points. I’m not the group manager though, so there is very little I can do about it.

    When I’ve tried to change things, I’m actively discouraged from doing so. It’s gotten to the point where I am contemplating switching groups. Managers say it’s not their problem to fix. More senior co-workers aren’t willing to change anything or interested in doing so.

  7. Chinook

    I work in a company that has spent the last 60 years perfecting their silos and are only now trying to break them down so we don’t duplicate work and make sure new projects are created in such a way that operations can take over the running of them smoothly. The bit about “make sure people are using tools that play well with others” has been the number one pain point, especially because many of our data collecting tools are mandated to us by our head office in another country that sees as insignificant speck in their worldview (literally, the people who came to train us on a new invoicing system wondered outloud in the meeting if we would be required to add GST to every invoice. Umm, that’s what the government tells us, so yeah?).

    Our work around has been hiring 3 amazing computer programmers who create programs that pull info from various other programs and slice and dice them to allow us to create comprehensive reports and follow the status of projects from other departments going on in the exact same location (because, in the past, one group would go in and dig their hole, do their work, fill in the hole and then, the next day, another group would come in and re-dig the exact same hole for a completely different reason because they didn’t know about the first crew). We literally cut costs because information was being shared.

  8. Golden Yeti

    I’ve sometimes wondered: does process software help at all? I’m thinking programs like Asana. They seem like they’d be helpful, but I’ve never played around with them/known someone who used them.

    1. Jillociraptor

      I’d say it depends on what your issue is. Beneath communication challenges are often culture challenges: people hoarding information, or somewhat more benignly just not really in it with each other enough to be able to figure out what others need. If you don’t resolve those issues, you can build whatever system you want and people will still complain that it “doesn’t work.”

      Asana works really well on a team where people are invested in each other. I don’t need to know exactly what Jane is doing next Tuesday, but I can see the next steps on the projects she shares with me so I can quickly get info without needing to waste everyone’s time with a bunch of emails.

      Same is true for things like regular email updates, shared intranet, etc. Works GREAT if the communication lapse is genuinely that people want a more regular opportunity to understand the work of others. Completely pointless if the issue is actually that people don’t know what they’re on the hook for and don’t feel on the hook for each other. That’s when you’ll get, “Sure it’s out there, but I have no time to read it!”

  9. FelineFine

    I have the reverse problem. As the manager I am constantly trying to pull information from my team. “What are you working on?” “What do you need help with?” “What is the status of XX?” It’s a work in progress.

Comments are closed.