The Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Digital Communication
The explosion of new communication tools like Slack, Zoom Communications, monday.com, and others enables enterprises across the world to better align workflows, manage projects, and streamline teamwork, regardless of time zones. As a company with dual headquarters in the US and the UK, Matillion would be lost without these tools.
But all of the digital communication tools in the world can’t solve fundamental communication issues. While these technologies have made communication easier, it’s still up to every individual business to learn how to communicate better. It’s a challenge we’re aware of all the time.
Digital communication is a struggle at all levels
From the C-suite to the intern, there are different ideas and opinions on how employees communicate using messaging platforms and email. Understanding cultural, national, generational, and regional nuances is challenging, but ignoring them can be costly. The Holmes Report cites the cost of poor communication at a staggering $37 billion. This cost includes actions or errors of omission by employees who have misunderstood or were misinformed about company policies, business processes, job function, or a combination of the three. The survey of 400 companies with 100,000 employees each cited an average loss per company of $62.4 million per year because of inadequate communication to and between employees.
Leadership development coach Tamica Sears has seen firsthand how a better communication strategy can help businesses work better. An HR professional of 20 years, Sears started her coaching business, Sears Coaching, five years ago to help executives embrace the shifting landscape of corporate America and motivate and inspire the people around them to transform their organizations.
Sears helps executives use their position to create change in their business and communication is an important part of her training. She shared her advice on digital communication and the best ways for executives to be a part of the solution, rather than the problem.
Matillion uses many of these techniques, and it’s helped us drastically improve communications between global offices and remote workers. A recent Forbes article featured some of the ways that Matillion communicates effectively between offices and across an ocean.
Do: Have executives lead by example
Due to titles and power dynamics, it can be challenging for employees to respond to leadership in a constructive way. Sears cautions that CEOs and other leaders need to start small in order to change that perspective. She explains, “I think it’s admirable for a CEO to say they don’t want employees to take their word as the final say. But that’s a very long road. Often, no matter what (the CEO) says, (people) will take the CEO’s word as final.”
Often, digital communications across remote teams can be misconstrued, depending on attributed tone or expectation of time to respond.
Matillion’s four modes of communication
In May, in his weekly “What’s on My Mind” (WOMM) talk, Matillion CEO Matthew Scullion introduced four communication modes to use when communicating with teammates digitally. The four modes are “#tell, #sell, #consult, and #brainstorm”.
- #Brainstorm is used for floating ideas, fostering opinions… anything without agenda.
- #Consult is used for asking for opinions and feedback on an idea/plan that should be taken seriously. In a healthy environment like Matillion, the Consult responses should be a high trust answer. “I think it’s a good idea because” or “I think it’s a bad idea because”.
- #Sell is when you are trying to get buy-in for your idea/perspective/etc. You’re preparing a compelling argument and inviting healthy debate.
- #Tell is as it sounds, you are telling someone to do something. If you’ve brainstormed and consulted adequately, you shouldn’t have to use that option very often.
By sharing which mode of communication you’re looking for, you set the framework for the conversation. This helps team members at all levels of the organization communicate better.
As in many organizations, people put a lot of weight behind the comments and opinions of our CEO. When Matthew uses #brainstorm and #consult, it alleviates the expectation that he is handing down a decision when he is actually asking team members to bring their opinions and ideas to the table. In practice, we use this across email, workplace messaging platforms like Slack, and in-person conversations.
Don’t: Keep communications vague
An errant message from an executive or boss asking if you have time to chat can set off anxiety and stress for any employee. While the sender may have been looking for a simple brainstorm or to share a to-do, the recipient can only infer the nature of the communication based on the small amount of information provided. And most of us have overactive imaginations.
To avoid this scenario, Sears recommends that leaders always set expectations with their communication. “I tell executives all the time to state the reason you’re having a conversation or sending a communication upfront. So if you are saying ‘I want to get your ideas’, state that clearly. Be very intentional about stating what you want out of that communication,” said Sears. This seemingly simple action can help facilitate an open conversation between the manager and direct report. Sears adds, “Also, if you state that you want something, be open to receiving it.”
Communication channels also matter. At Matillion, we are work across offices and time zones. We have to be mindful of effectively communicating context and complexity. Slack works great for a few lines of back-and-forth conversation, but for longer communications, hopping on Zoom or the phone helps prevent omissions and misunderstandings that can cause unnecessary delays.
Do: Invest in training and behavioral assessments to expose blind spots
There may be executives and directors who believe they have a great communication style and are seen as approachable by the larger organization, even if that’s not actually the case. To get C-suite to open up to feedback on their working style, Sears employs a 360 review to highlight hidden strengths and expose weaknesses from peers, direct reports, leaders, and sometimes even vendors.
Recently, members of Team Green went through Lencioni training in the US and the UK to help our managers foster team building and strengthen the way we communicate with one another. The idea is to empower employees to work together and communicate with our teammates to achieve overall company objectives.
For leaders who find that they struggle to communicate effectively, Sears suggests a behavioral assessment to provide guardrails for communicating with people with different working styles. “It lets you have a comfortable conversation because now the feedback is contextual and removes the personal,” she says.
Don’t: Ask employees to flex to exec communication styles
While it is important for leaders to be the driving force of better communication, it isn’t up to them to decide what that looks like for every individual. Different employees will have different styles that require adaptability. But the person in power should be the one that adapts. Sears explained, “Leaders have to adapt to the team that they’re speaking with. I like for leaders to flex their leadership styles in different situations. Asking employees to flex to (a different) style is flexing the wrong way.”
But how do leaders know how and when to flex their style? According to Sears, failures often highlight when and how to adapt their style. “When I’m coaching, I will walk someone through a time that they used that communication style and they were not super successful,” said Sears. “They have to see the failure of communication and understand where not being clear in their communication or not being open to suggestions has caused them problems.”
Effective communication is a journey, not a destination
As businesses grow in size and location, effective communication strategies are important to begin and refine as time goes on. Businesses with effective communication practices are over 50 percent more likely to report employee turnover levels below the industry average. Getting executives on board first will help to shape and inform communication from the top down.
At Matillion, we regularly solicit employee feedback on every part of the business, from onboarding to events, including communication. With an open dialog on how information flows through the business, it’s easier to identify and create effective communication for every employee.
If you are looking to join a company that invests heavily in effective communication, browse our open positions at https://www.matillion.com/careers/.