The Science Behind Improving Communication In The Workplace

Resources > The Science of Communication

6 Tips and a Free Worksheet to Help Your Team Improve Communication

By Rachel Kaplowitz, CEO of Honey

Improving communication in the workplace - even one simple change - can impact business performance in a big way.

A 2018 study by The Economist points out that poor communication at work is often the culprit behind failed projects, low morale, missed performance goals — and lost sales. This is not surprising when we consider that communication is at the very heart of relationships, and relationships impact how people get things done at work.

Think of moments you felt really great at work. Chances are, they involved good communication; maybe you were able to get your point across in a meeting, or someone praised your work. That probably motivated you to do even better the next time, and your good feelings rubbed off in interactions with the people around you.

It’s not just about good feelings, though. Improving communication in the workplace also improves a company’s bottom line, thanks to its positive effects on employee engagement. Best of all, communication may not be all that hard to improve. A few easy places to start can be found in what science tells us about human behavior. We’ll show you some you can implement today, including one so simple it will surprise you.

Considering a company intranet? Start with our free Problem Identification Worksheet to make sure you’re on the right track!

6 science-backed tips for improving communication in the workplace

We don’t have to tell you that engagement is seriously lacking in many workplaces. Gallup reports that around two-thirds of U.S. employees are unengaged at work. Why? What makes us “unengaged”? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?

A group of researchers looked to social cognitive theory for answers and found that when employees believed they could do the work asked of them, they were more engaged. They also discovered that workers’ positive relationships with the people around them played a role in this belief and, ultimately, in their engagement.

Building positive relationships at work doesn’t have to be a big, expensive project. The most powerful tips are ones you can put in place right away and weave into your company’s culture by using them every day. Here are six you can start with.

1. Choose the right medium for your message.

There are five parts to communication: the sender, the message, the medium, the receiver, and the feedback.

5 Parts of Communication

It makes sense that how information gets delivered — the medium — matters a lot. Seeing something versus hearing it triggers different areas of the brain, affecting how we process information. Just think about the famous example of the Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy presidential debate: Those who listened to it on the radio thought Nixon won. Those who watched it on TV thought Kennedy won.

With all of the options that we now have for communication at work, things are more complicated than ever. Add to that the fact that different age groups may prefer different channels. The Economist study shows a gap in adoption of instant messaging between baby boomers and younger generations, for instance.

Instant Messaging at Work

Regardless, there are some universal factors to consider when it comes to selecting the right medium for the message at work. According to Harvard Business Review, the answer can be found by asking two questions:

What is the nature of the subject?

If the subject is specific and purely informational, email or instant messaging is appropriate. If it’s more complicated, nuanced, or sensitive, face-to-face or phone is better.

What type of response do you need?

If you need an answer quickly, instant messaging or phone may work. Generally, the more information you need on a topic, the more you’ll want to give the other person the opportunity to talk it out rather than requiring them to write down everything.

This, of course, is subject to individuals’ preferences, which we’ll get into in a moment.

When you need to communicate with your whole team, consider how a Honey intranet can help.

With a Honey intranet, you have the option to post videos when you need to communicate with everyone at your company. This is an efficient way to bring personal communication into your workplace without requiring everyone to be face-to-face; the recipients can still benefit from seeing your facial expressions and body language. This is so much better than email, which is often open to interpretation. You could also consider creating a guide for your team, like the chart found here, and posting it to your intranet as a resource.

Now let’s look at how we can help bring together the sender and the recipient in the communication equation.

2. Create common ground.

Diversity is a great thing. But when we do not have the same background information, misunderstandings happen more easily. Today’s businesses are made up of people from various races, age groups, genders, geographical regions, and cultures, each bringing their own set of filters based on their unique experiences.

To understand each other, we need our brains to sync up.

That was the conclusion of researchers at Princeton who watched the brain activity of speakers and listeners to see what happened during communication.

They found that as we listen to others, our brain activity begins to look just like that of the speaker. The researchers called this “coupling,” essentially the syncing up of our brain waves. The better the understanding between the speaker and the listener, the more the brain activity patterns coupled, or synced up.

Brain Sync

So how do we go about syncing our brains better? The Princeton researchers found that good communication depends on the speaker and the listener sharing common ground.

Create common ground with shared information and experiences.

We need to practice building common ground if we are to improve communication in the workplace. Here are some things you can put in place to help:

  • Build a shared vision. A common goal can unite the team.

  • Improve transparency to make sure everyone has access to the same information. (Hint: Your Honey intranet is the perfect ground zero for this!)

  • Connect people from different backgrounds for regular conversation. Try a teammate-pairing app like Donut for Slack.

  • Hold regular offsite team meetings, or get everyone together if your team works remotely.

If these feel heavy, you might find it easier to start with our next tip.

3. Tell others you appreciate them.

Studies show that expressing gratitude has a positive impact on groups and individuals. It strengthens relationships and improves mood, satisfaction, and happiness. Apparently, it also makes businesses more profitable.

Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory states that recognition taps into the satisfaction we feel when we are recognized for our work. A part of our brain called the striatum connects social rewards — such as a compliment — with behavior. This motivates us to perform better. In fact, a team of Japanese scientists proved that people performed tasks better after receiving a compliment.

The implications of recognizing others for a job well done can trickle right down to a company’s bottom line.

Researchers at the O.C. Tanner Group set out to quantify the connection between business performance and communicating appreciation for others. They plotted three indicators of business performance against how strongly employees felt that the company recognized excellence among its workforce. Across all three measures (return on equity, return on assets, and operating margin), the companies who scored in the top quadrant for employee appreciation also showed the highest performance.

Employee Recognition

The researchers concluded that “companies that most effectively recognize excellence enjoy vastly superior profitability.” It’s hard to believe that such a simple change can create such a profound effect!

So, how do you build a culture that involves recognition of a job well done?

Thank someone on your team every day.

You can start by saying thank you at least once a day to someone in your organization who has done something well. Keep in mind that to excel at recognition, the O.C. Tanner Group advises that it must be timely, specific, and frequent.

Consider how your company intranet can help. A Honey intranet lets you shine a spotlight on employees or simply post a note of thanks.

And don’t forget to consider how the other person prefers to communicate before reaching out with your appreciation. We’ll show you how next.

4. Adjust your style to others' communication preferences.

Different communication styles cause stress and lead to misunderstandings. In fact, 42% of participants in the study by The Economist said different communication styles are a leading cause of miscommunication at work.

Think about how you write emails. Are you careful to always include a greeting? Do you use full sentences and sprinkle in exclamation points? How do you feel when you get a brusque one-liner from a colleague? Or worse, an empty email with just a subject line in all caps?

How our brains are wired can account for why people approach the same things differently. This may help explain why some people prefer a lengthy discussion over reading a report, for example. But while we are already programmed to change up our communication based on the other person (thanks to the region of the brain right above our eyes, the prefrontal cortex), clearly we need to do more.

Understanding your own and others’ preferences can help build empathy in your workplace. Remember how the one-line email can make you feel? You’re less likely to assume the sender is angry and more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt if you know that’s simply how they communicate.

Give your team the tools they need to understand each others’ communication preferences.

There are several tools to help people assess preferences. Some popular choices include Myers-Briggs, HBDI, and DiSC. These can show why each of us communicates the way we do.

At Honey, every team member also creates an Employee User Manual about their work style. This gives us a way to share with each other how we best operate, what our values are, and what we need in order to bring our best selves to work each day.

It also sends a powerful message to a new teammate that they’re an important part of Honey. Turns out that’s a pretty important factor for improving workplace communication, too.

5. Create opportunities for each person to feel like they belong.

Humans have a fundamental need for positive relationships. Feeling excluded triggers a painful response as social distress plays out in the circuitry of your brain. It can lead to depression and affect health negatively in other ways. At work, it can lead to disengagement and turnover.

So, what makes people feel like they belong? A LinkedIn study tells us that people need opportunities to express opinions freely. Everyone needs to feel heard and that their opinion matters.

Be intentional about including everyone.

Improving workplace communication means actively working to make sure everyone feels like they belong. Here are two of the best ways to do this:

  • Encourage managers to hold regular one-on-one meetings with every direct report. These are a powerful tool, and, done right, they help everyone feel heard. (For guidance, dig into any of the 42 podcasts at Manager Tools.)

  • Use your intranet to shine a light on groups or interests that might otherwise remain on the fringe. On a Honey intranet, you can host an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session or feature shared interests such as women in tech, LGBTQ, book clubs, or other topics that can help bring people together. (There’s lots you can do with Honey. Learn more here!)

6. Change up how you approach meetings.

Meetings are a great opportunity for communication at scale, but few companies seem to do them well.

Have you ever sat through a lengthy meeting and wondered why you were there? Apparently, you’re not the only one. In the study by The Economist, 78% of the participants said clearer goals for meetings would significantly improve workplace communication.

And with unclear goals, it’s no wonder people fiddle with their phones during meetings. But when the focus is on sending a text, the person is unlikely to join discussions or remember what was discussed. This can be explained by the fact that our brains need time to switch focus between tasks.

A couple of tweaks to the way your company approaches meetings could make a huge impact.

Consider banning cell-phone use, and ask meeting organizers to set goals for every meeting.

Just implementing these two requirements for meetings could make your team more productive, not to mention improve their communication and morale.

If you are thinking that you are not the CEO, and you don’t have the power to require every single person to put away their cell phone during a meeting, think about this: All change has to start somewhere. And if you’re serious about improving communication at work, it can start with you, no matter who you are.

Wondering where to start?

Tapping into the science of what makes us tick as human beings can help improve communication and bring great rewards to your organization. So why are many companies slow to tackle communication?

One possible explanation is that it feels overwhelming as a goal. If that’s you, try starting with just one or two of the tips above. If you’re a manager, pick one tip and then ask those who report to you to do it. By specifying behavior, like requiring a purpose for each meeting, you break it down into an action item. Not a manager yet? It’s never too early to try some of these tips yourself.

And if you’re considering how an intranet can help, check out our Problem Identification Worksheet, or try a demo today!