Communication, Communication, Communication!

communicationIn real estate, they say the three most important things are “location, location, location.” Well, when it comes to staff relations, I think the three most important things are “communication, communication, communication!”

Throughout this book, I’ve driven home the importance of consistency in nearly every aspect of HR. Nowhere is consistency more important than in this area of employee satisfaction. Back in the first chapter, I discussed how inconsistency can cause employees to feel they are being taken advantage of or treated unfairly. One of the best ways to proactively head off disillusionment in this area is with effective communication. Communication has the potential to literally make or break your employment relationship.

When an employee becomes dissatisfied, it is usually because a fundamental expectation is not being met, but sometimes the disconnect stems more from poor communication than from the actual circumstances themselves. Misunderstandings will inevitably occur, but how you respond to those misunderstandings can make all the difference. Approaching these issues with humility and honesty plays a critical role in keeping the lines of communication open.

Not too long ago, I was involved in a situation where a breakdown in communication caused a huge rift and significant dissatisfaction among staff. Two different groups from the same organization were sharing office space, but their needs for the space were dramatically different. Both groups reported to a different manager within the organization, and since both of the managers had their own significantly different ideas about the priority for the space, each group had expectations in alignment with what their manager had shared with them. Under the circumstances, the resulting conflict was not surprising.

By the time the situation was brought to my attention, claims of discrimination and harassment were being thrown around liberally. Since the staff in the group that had reportedly been claiming discrimination were primarily members of a minority group, it was no small matter. There was also talk of some staff being ready to leave because they couldn’t continue to work in such a negative environment. To complicate matters even further, the executive who had originally approved renting the space was no longer with the organization. This opened the door to both sides claiming they had the correct understanding of the intended use of the space.

The office in question was over fifty miles away from the main office, which only added to the layers of confusion. When I learned of the situation, I was shocked to discover no one had actually gone out to the office and gotten everyone together at the same time to talk it through. A zillion and one side meetings had been held to “investigate” the situation, but they had served only to waste time, muddy the water, and, in general, make things a whole lot worse. Everyone was being told by someone else what “the other side” was saying instead of hearing it firsthand together. While there are some situations where individual meetings are more appropriate, in a situation where there is clearly a lot of misunderstanding and opposing expectations within a group, you will never bring about resolution without meeting to find a place of mutual understanding. Talking to people, rather than talking about them and what you think they are saying, is usually a much more effective means of communication!

After getting a little background on the situation and talking briefly to the leaders involved (including the executive who was no longer with the organization), we set up a mandatory meeting for all concerned. The first thing we did in the meeting was apologize and acknowledge that communication had broken down with leadership and that the staff should never have been put in the situation they were in. We talked about ground rules for the meeting and that our goal wasn’t to determine who was “right” but rather to find a way to move forward that everyone could live with.

The meeting was a little tense at times. A little. But the bottom line of the story is after about an hour and a half of sometimes difficult but open and honest dialogue, we were able to resolve a situation that had been brewing and wreaking havoc for months. We immediately put a temporary solution in place that everyone bought into, while we agreed to look for an even better longer term solution. Most importantly, we didn’t lose any of the staff and they were able to work much more cooperatively together from that point forward. It wasn’t perfect and not everyone was 100% happy, but it did get us back on the right track.

Here’s the main point: The staff wanted the situation to work. They usually do. We (the organization’s leadership) needed to own our part of the fiasco—which was exceptionally poor communication and a lack of coordinated planning between the two groups from the beginning—and set a new baseline for moving forward. Once the staff felt “heard” and saw the sincerity on the part of leadership to commit to a workable solution, it was relatively easy to arrive at a solution from there.

How you communicate has the potential to aid, or hinder, your staff’s engagement and fulfillment. I’ve seen more employment relationships go south due to poor communication than almost any other thing. Poor communication directly affects expectations, and unmet expectations can lead to frustration and burnout. The sad thing about a lapse in the area of communication is that most of the time, it is absolutely preventable.

Although it is preventable, it’s not always easy. God has wired us with different personalities and a wide variety of past experiences. What we “hear” goes through our own unique filters, which makes communication with other imperfect humans a wonderfully tricky thing. Don’t assume that because you know what you mean, everyone else does too. We know our intentions, but everyone else knows what they actually hear, see, and experience. Do a little self-assessment in this area and ask others about your communication style. If you’re serious about valuing and honoring your staff, you need to know what they are really hearing when you communicate with them.

Effective communication is especially critical in times of organizational change. If your skill set doesn’t include being able to anticipate how staff might react to certain types of changes or information, seek the counsel of others who are more naturally attuned in this area (“feelers” are much more dialed in to these types of things than “thinkers”). With proactive, transparent, and compassionate  communication, I’ve seen employees willingly get on board with incredibly difficult adjustments, including cuts in benefits, changes in pay or position, etc. On the other hand, with poor communication, I’ve seen employees nearly riot over small and seemingly insignificant changes—sometimes even when the changes are to their benefit!

You can’t afford to take this subject lightly. It is one of the key issues that will determine the overall quality of your staff’s experience and significantly affects retention. And, whether you have come to realize it or not, employee satisfaction will directly affect the fruitfulness of your ministry.

This post is an edited excerpt from Chapter 8: “Employee Experience and Retention” from my book HR Matters.  Click HERE to get your copy today!