By Rachel Kaplowitz, CEO of Honey
Leaders are held to a higher standard when it comes to workplace communication skills. But good communication is hard. Managers seem to have a tough time connecting with their staff nearly everywhere you look.
Most advice aimed at improving communication in the workplace focuses on how to communicate. But when we looked into the thinking behind HR efforts at Google—widely recognized as one of the best places to work in the world—we noticed that the thinking behind what to communicate is just as important.
Laszlo Bock can be credited for much of Google’s reputation as a great employer. The former Senior Vice President of People Operations helped shape the tech giant’s workforce and culture, paving the way for the company to grow to 65,000 employees. During his tenure, he relentlessly dug into the work environment, measuring the effects of changes he made and continually moving the company toward greater productivity. And employees were happy; the company was recognized as a great place to work over 100 times while he led people ops.
As managers, we dream of creating a workplace like that.
To understand how he did it, we take a look at some of Laszlo’s greatest insights around communication from his best-selling book, Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. We learned four deceptively simple principles that can help shape a manager’s communication skills—and the workplace—for the better.
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1. Treat people like owners, not machines.
Good workplace communication skills start with a belief in your people. Laszlo says in his book, “All it takes is a belief that people are fundamentally good—and enough courage to treat your people like owners instead of machines. Machines do their jobs; owners do whatever is needed to make their companies and teams successful.”
When you trust that your people want to see the business succeed, you can tap into their higher-order thinking. You’re getting more than a body to fulfill a task; you’re engaging a mind and a heart, and the powerful effects that stem from that. A highly engaged employee can inspire coworkers, think creatively, and drive innovation.
How can you treat people like owners?
Step back and let go of control. Leave it up to employees to determine how to solve problems and do their work. Yes, they may fail—and they need to feel safe to do that. In fact, Google found that psychological safety was the top dynamic for team success. Failing provides the vital learning environment that helps your people grow and move toward better decisions. When you always have the final say, you remove the responsibility and ownership from those who will ultimately need to carry out the work—and the motivation to think creatively the next time.
Great managers treat people like owners. They communicate as much as they can about the work and why it’s important. Then they leave it up to the employee to determine how they will handle it.
2. Find ways to show why the work matters.
Everyone wants to feel like the work they do makes a difference. Great workplace communication skills prioritize helping people understand why the work they are doing is important.
Laszlo points out that meeting customers draws the most powerful link: “Having workers meet the people they are helping is the greatest motivator, even if they only meet for a few minutes. It imbues one’s work with a significance that transcends careerism or money.”
He cites the work of Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of Business and author of Give and Take. Adam studied the connection between motivation and performance in a fundraising call center. He found that just bringing in a customer to talk to a team for five minutes spiked productivity for the week by 400%.
How to show the meaning in work.
Introduce your team to the customers your business serves.
While face-to-face seems to be most powerful, even reading about the impact of work can have a positive effect. So give your people inspiring stories to read. Pass along comments from customers about how your product is solving their problems.
You probably already prioritize a customer-first attitude in your product development. Talking to customers will have the twofold benefit of helping your employees stay in touch with what customers want as well as motivating them to do better work. Try this spin on your customer interviews: record staff members interviewing customers—rotate interviewees and record it for everyone to watch or listen to.
You could feature a customer story on your intranet every month. Using video lets you get almost as close up and personal as face-to-face meetings do.
And don’t forget about internal customers. If someone plays even a small part in your team’s work, make sure to put them in touch to say hello. Connecting the dotted lines for everyone is a great place to start when it comes to building open communication.
3. Be transparent, but sensitive.
A knack for sharing information ranks high on the list of effective workplace communication skills of managers. In fact, transparency has proven to be an ingredient for many successful companies.
Laszlo points out, “If you believe people are fundamentally good and worthy of trust, you must be honest and transparent with them.” Open communication applies even—perhaps especially—when it’s a difficult topic, like lagging performance. However, he cautions that “having a mission-driven, purposeful workplace also requires that you approach people with sensitivity.”
How to be transparent, but sensitive.
It takes time and effort to communicate information, but it is one of the most important parts of your job as a manager. This means making difficult topics a part of regular conversation rather than skirting around issues. That’s how you build a foundation of trust in your communication with others.
Make it clear that open communication is a priority. In this AMA on Reddit, Laszlo stresses the importance of the tone set by top leadership when it comes to sharing information, saying “Either your top folks want an open company where everyone contributes (and increases the odds of success) or they want to be just like everyone else and the most talented people will leave.” He encourages calling people on information-hoarding behavior, though he cautions to assume good intent.
Tip: Consider hosting your own internal AMA on your Honey intranet!
Let others ask questions. Be transparent about challenges your company is facing, as well as successes. Google has held weekly all-hands meetings since its early days that include Q & A sessions where staff can ask the company founders anything. If you’re looking to build innovation, Laszlo has also recommended drawing back the curtains on the C-suite. He suggests letting junior staff attend senior leadership meetings as note-takers or videotaping those meetings for distribution to the rest of the company.
And when you’re the one asking questions, really listen to the answers. In the case of low performance, for example, take the time to understand why performance has become an issue for a staff member before deciding on next steps. Is it because of a skills gap? Or is motivation missing?
You’ll need to decide where to draw the line when it comes to transparency; maybe you’ll be open about salaries but keep employee review results private, for example. A measure of sensitivity will serve you well here.
4. Be inclusive and friendly.
Starting from an employee’s first day, make sure they feel welcome and valued.
Laszlo’s team actually measured the effects of this workplace communication skill: "When an employee starts on their first day, we have data that says, if the manager shows up and says, 'Hi nice to meet you, you're on my team, we're gonna be working together,' and does a few other things, those people end up fifteen percent more productive in nine months.“
And it’s no wonder—a sense of belonging is linked to workplace commitment, motivation, and pride, three elements that form a backbone to employee engagement.
How to be inclusive and friendly.
As a manager, you need to make sure you’re spreading your attention appropriately among all your staff. It can be helpful to standardize relationship-building activities like weekly one-on-one meetings with all your direct reports, to make sure everyone is included. To find opportunities to build a friendly rapport, note important milestones for each of your employees so you have an excuse to reach out with congratulations or a personal note.
You can also use your company intranet to spark friendly, team-building communication. For instance, highlight staff members regularly, and let each decide what they would like to share. Give recognition for a job well done. Find ways for people at your company to connect with others with common interests. Encourage social interactions like special interest clubs.
Consider rotating responsibilities for things like running meetings so everyone has a chance to develop important workplace communication skills and feel like they are a valued team member.
Including and being friendly to everyone doesn’t require you be an outgoing person—you can rely on tools and systems to help you. The key is being mindful of it.
Which workplace communication skills do you need to tackle?
When it comes to building workplace communication skills, we gravitate toward tips like “always reply to an email within 24 hours.” But the truth is, it’s our deeply held beliefs that more meaningfully shape how we communicate at work.
Which of the lessons above hit home for you? Like Laszlo, do you believe your employees are “fundamentally good”?
Few would say no. But answer these two questions:
1. How often do your employees come to you for permission or approval? If you find yourself approving things several times a day, your employees may not feel trusted or empowered. What would happen if you let them decide just a few of the things they now come to you about?
2. How often do your employees disagree with you and win you over to their viewpoint? If you can’t think of a few times in the last week, then ask yourself whether people might not be challenging you because they have learned to take the path of least resistance. That’s not the way to build a winning company.
When you understand the importance of trusting your people, your mindset changes—and so does your communication.
Find out what your team really thinks. Ask these questions to start the conversation or talk to Honey about how you can improve communication with your company intranet.