Good communication systems are a real differentiator in the workplace whether the message being delivered is praise or unfavorable feedback. Good communication systems can make the difference between individuals feeling satisfied or disgruntled—no matter what is being said. It can close the gap between an organization competently meeting a challenge by being transparent and effective, or being overwhelmed by it. Good communication allows respect and honesty to thrive.
Yet people are not born fully-fledged communicators: we have to learn to convey our ideas and develop our thinking. Likewise workplaces also need to actively cultivate good communication skills so those who work within it can become fluent in its positive expression. Being an effective communicator takes practice, and that’s where strong systems that support preparation and performance are essential.
Transparency is one of the values of cooperation, and honest communication is key to demonstrating that the organization is open and its motivations clear. Whatever is going on internally will radiate out. Nowhere is this more important than in the workplace and the quality of the relationship the co-op has with its staff. Ineffective or passive-aggressive communication also gets results, but not the kind that anyone wants.
Sarah Dahl, human resource systems consultant said that developing strong systems starts with thinking about the lifecycle of every employee. How communication is managed each step of the way in hiring, training, evaluation and discipline, as well as separation or end of employment, is critical. She said that regularly assessing the effectiveness of your human resource systems is important because organizations have a natural tendency to want to operate based on established ways of doing things, rather than focused on continual improvement.
For example, managers know they have to do certain things at certain times, like arrange for training when someone is newly hired, or schedule a yearly evaluation, but the opportunity to check in or share observations in between doesn’t happen often enough. “Employees want more feedback. They like to have a connection to their managers and hear about their progress on goals. Consistent feedback is not ancillary to the job. It’s central to good personnel management,” Dahl said. “When you not only give feedback, but make room for what people have to say it can be very powerful and useful information.”
Dahl said that’s why approachability is so essential for everyone in the workplace, but especially for people in leadership positions. Sometimes managers are focused on the work at hand on the sales floor, but being able to manage personnel and connect with people is another important aspect of the job. She noted that people often have strengths in either the personnel side or focusing on reaching tangible work goals. “All managers should have coaching to support development of both aspects of the job,” Dahl said. Her experience running an HR department convinced her of the efficacy of learning and training the Crucial Conversations technique. “Almost everyone needs help with learning how to address problems professionally,” she said.
Dahl also said that accountability is essential in ensuring communication happens to keep everyone in the loop. While word-of-mouth, logbooks or whiteboards might work in some departments, these methods also have their drawbacks. Word-of-mouth can be informal and at times unreliable. Logbooks may go ignored and unread. Whiteboards either get erased too frequently or the info is outdated. Or there’s an overriding assumption that everyone knows what they need to know. Overcoming these challenges with technology and leadership consistency can make a big difference to morale in a growing workplace.
Dahl said that based on employee satisfaction surveys, operations that implement systems like staff email, and provide people a time and place to read it, have greater success keeping everyone informed of what they need to know. There also has to be a cultural expectation that being informed is something everyone needs to do. “Sometimes staff resist because they don’t view it as part of their job, they think they’re hired to run a cash register, not check email. Managers need to encourage people as well as hold them accountable. It’s an important responsibility of the job.”
Carolee Colter, human resources systems and training expert, said that part of all good communication systems is a conscious awareness that the co-op is working to build a workplace culture based on equity and professionalism. One dynamic she thinks organizations could be more mindful about is what she calls a parent-child communication style. This can manifest when managers are considered omniscient authority figures or employees don’t feel empowered to enact change. “If you’re not conscious of it, it can get entrenched and nobody wants that,” Colter said. Her advice for co-op leaders is to go back to the co-op’s purpose. “What do you want to accomplish in the workplace? Mutual respect.”
Employee surveys can help measure the health of the organizational culture and provide feedback for how to change it. But Carolee said that the usefulness of the results are not just in measuring satisfaction, but how to make the work culture more robust. In today’s increasingly demanding marketplace, having a motivated staff is an asset and competitive advantage.
Colter thinks that the Open Book Management system also offers cooperatives a lot of potential for instituting an organizational communication style based on dealing with everyone as equals. OBM is a system to encourage employee participation in understanding financial and operational information about the business that allows people to be proactive about setting and meeting goals, and be participants in the business success.
“Employees who are engaged and see that ‘we’re in it together’ will bring into the equation more dollars and cents,” Colter said. “In surveys, Open Book is clearly something that staff like.” People like to be trusted with information, but even more important, be empowered to act on what they learned so they can make improvements. “When Open Book is functioning well, everyone is exposed to new ideas and everyone has a chance to offer their opinion.”
Colter noted that the work of communication is never done, and that it doesn’t flow without effort. “Those co-ops invested in culture change and measuring it are taking incremental steps to improve it. It’s remarkable to me what good can happen when people make the effort to keep moving ahead in a positive direction.”