Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Operations: How should we say what we need to

In my last article 'The greatest part of communication - listening' I touched on some of the forms of communication we use. It seems appropriate to me to go into a little more detail for novices to the business world as well as the experienced who might need a reminder and anyone just wishing to learn.

I do not profess to be an expert on communication or indeed on anything but I happen to enjoy sharing what little I know to help others. It's how everyone learns. It's struck me time and time again that no matter what your job title may be or even if you have none communication is such a vast subject that it's wise to review how we are doing on that front at regular intervals.

Breaking it down as I did in my last article we have written, verbal and person to person communication. Each has a myriad of forms when it comes to business. All are appropriate to a greater of lesser extent dependent on the nature of the business and the situations that occur. So what works best depends a lot on those two elements. A financial company is likely to focus on formal communication and less inclined to enter into informal chat. Whereas a community organisation necessarily has to be able to engage in a much more personal style in order to be effective in what it delivers.

I shall start though with touching on a sore topic for many when it comes to communication in the work place. The issue of if and when staff are allowed to make contact with their friends, relatives, utility companies, bank, care providers, car repairers, legal representatives to name but a few.

Work rules for personal communication
Time is a constraint for everyone and so it is that some organisations have opted to make it a policy for staff to never be allowed to connect with the internet for personal emails or to make phones while at work. Emails and phone calls while at work I believe should be restricted to breaks so that staff are able to check on ailing relatives, when the electrician says he will turn up or child care provision etc. It can be a distraction to staff to be worrying the whole day about such things and therefore counter productive to breed resentment by a total ban.

Other employers go one further and ban staff from using social media e.g. Facebook even in their off duty hours for fear of privileged information or derogatory comments being made about the business. I would advocate it being a disciplinary matter if staff are found to be guilty of either for two reasons - firstly it is an infringement of civil liberties to ban people from these things and secondly if staff are so foolish as to slate their employers over the internet then surely they shouldn't expect to be employed! 

We get more from staff when we believe in them I've always found. A lot depends on how good you are at interviewing to avoid those pitfalls. And some staff might extol the organisation's brilliance if you are wise enough to ensure they are happy in their work. Nothing is more cost effective in marketing than word of mouth recommendations be it from customers or staff.

Timing is everything
Whether it is a marketing campaign (I would argue any information you need to impart to the world at large should be treated as such), a annual report, a training seminar or a staff meeting timing is crucial.

Not allowing enough time for preparation can spell disaster. This means ensuring that you not only have collated all the information you need but that you have planned and organised it appropriately. It also means that you need to allocate time to hear, read or meet with people. In business we can not afford to miss a vital bit of detail when we read something because we lack the time to notice it. Not finding time to do so comes at high risk. We can not afford to take too many short cuts if we want to ensure we get things right.

Allocating the right amount of time for meetings and phone calls is always tricky especially if you are in the middle of short-listing emailed application forms or responsible for responding to leads from a recent advertising campaign. How often has the cry gone out "I haven't got time for another meeting!" or "Tell them I've had a family emergency or something!" Best to be honest really, even if you've forgotten and turn up late or unprepared - people deserve that and they are human too so have probably had the same type of day at some point.

In a previous article I recommended Edward De Bono's book 'Six Thinking Hats'. Quite frankly, if you want to cut the time you spend in meetings all I can suggest is you follow his suggestions! Meetings and phone calls are vital to fit in, but time them to fit into your pre-planned schedule. What? No schedule? Er... perhaps you might need to look at that then.

Meetings should be scheduled with plenty of notice for everyone to confirm they will attend and so that they can come prepared with their contributions. Emergency meetings need to always be because of a genuine emergency that has occurred that day, otherwise it does not compute with me that it is an emergency. Even cases of theft or fraud need copious amounts of facts collated beforehand so a simple memo stating everyone is under investigation should suffice. No, fortunately I have never encountered that particular scenario myself, but rumour has it these things happen.

Equally time to make those phone calls to clients and suppliers can be allocated. Yes there will be interruptions, so factor that into your timing schedules.

As ever there are whole libraries on the the subject of Time Management and on Communication for you to draw upon if you need a useful tome or two and indeed training courses from a many training providers if you require mastering how to manage these things. They usually do Stress Management courses too if it's got that bad! Suffice to say I'll leave Time Management there for now. This is as I stated at the start merely by way of a reminder/quick guide of some things to consider. Talking of which...

Missed information
Examples of missed information are all too common and the result is extra work to rectify the mistake. A poster advertising an event without a ticket price will lead to extra enquiry phone calls - not sales calls and that's assuming customers are interested enough to enquire - many won't bother.

A disciplinary ignoring the fact that a member of staff is recently bereaved (that might explain why they swore at someone) could lead to all sorts of Employment Law trouble, and a financial report that misses out a thumping great loss of earnings in one area will help no one resolve the difficulty.
Ensure always that you have got ALL the information you need before you start thinking about sharing it.

Assuming that you have the facts and all the information you need you now get down to the nitty gritty of finding the right words. Too many and it becomes inane and tedious waffle, too few and it ends up causing more work.

If ever your communication is going to be involved or detailed (including phone conversations) the trick is to make a list of what is essential to include. This applies to emails, a report, a set of instructions or anything. Yep, we are right back at those English essay classes at school and remember the comprehension tests too? Spelling and grammar?

Be sure to distinguish and differentiate between what is factual information and what is personal opinion. Take ownership of what is your perspective, your view or your opinion and back it up with why you have arrived at it. I own I don't always do that when tweeting and yes there are exceptions to that rule for a variety of reasons including timing and need to know privileged information and for security.

We simply cannot and should not spend all our time justifying and explaining every single decision made or view expressed - none of us has the time to do so, as once you start down that road you will soon find yourself short on time to do anything else. However, I believe it is very much right and just to do so in areas where the care of others is uppermost and this includes looking after staff and customers. None of us are psychic so therefore it is helpful to provide some insight to our methodology to aid better communication. Anything creative of course and the more you entice and intrigue your audience with your thoughts the better, as a general rule of thumb.

As to the vocabulary to use, it is always wise to bear in mind who we will be communicating with. I despair at times with people who launch into things without doing so. Expletives may be common in manual working environments but if you are a manager you need to be careful about whether or not you indulge in their usage and never, never, never in written communication unless you want to risk your career.

Put yourself in your 'target audiences' shoes. How do they communicate? How do they wish to be addressed? No one likes to be sworn at, no one likes to be treated as if they are idiots, no one likes to be lectured to. Again there are exceptions to the latter, notably verbal or written warnings as precursors to a dreaded disciplinary hearing - even so there are strict guidelines on wording under Employment Law. Seek advise from HR professionals.

The aim of the game in any business communication is always to be as accurate, precise and concise as possible. Customer Service and Sales departments are perhaps the hardest areas to achieve this in as there it really does pay dividends to demonstrate an interest in your clients. Who do they know that might be a future client? What has interested them enough to choose you above all others etc. All extremely time consuming and the best people for the job are the natural communicators of this world - the ones you yourself would happily chat all day with... if you had the time, but they must above all else be listeners first hopefully with the added ability to type while talking on the phone!

Finally on wording I would suggest that in the world of business the use of adjectives is the most hazardous area of all. Nothing is more open to misinterpretation than an ill-chosen adjective. Then again, nothing can be as fruitful either. Choose your words carefully and order them in a logical sequence be it a bullet pointed list or a descriptive passage about a new product or service. I've not met a person yet who is perfect on this, and I am no exception but awareness of the pitfalls can certainly help us all avoid the worst of them.

A quick word about gossips
A lot of work time is wasted in unproductive chatter but I am not entirely against chat, perhaps because as an avid listener I don't always find it unproductive. It's main purpose is to help bond teams but I do scowl and get annoyed when I encounter teams who relish bitching and backstabbing. To me it's a sign of a very unhappy workforce. And no, it is not just women who do it, some of the most prolific talkers seem to be men in my experience - is there nothing they can't excel at? 
Gossiping because one is concerned about a colleague, getting to know people or gain information is one thing - gossiping to look down upon another actually says to me that the gossip is the one not worth bothering with, and they tend to be the ones to blame others for everything and do very little work. I confess they are not my favourite kind of people so unless they are mentally ill (which is debatable) I have little time for them.

Challenging communicationI happen to love challenging people to think. It ties in with empowerment to encourage people to think and to work things out for themselves. I recently tweeted that at times I sometimes wonder if governments wouldn't prefer us all to be lobotomised as it might make it easier for them. The fact is it wouldn't though. If we weren't beings capable of thought we simply wouldn't have been able to evolve into the diverse world we live in today.

My stance should be apparent by now, it's fine to challenge a thought, a policy, an idea but never to attack an individual for it. Separate the one from the other. Yes there are exceptions when it comes to finding culprits that cause mayhem, but the law is there precisely to help us deal with those. Don't fall foul of it yourself by leaping to assumptions without copious amounts of evidence.
Challenging is great in certain situations but always to be avoided is malicious, insulting and slanderous language. I come from a line of solicitors/lawyers and the rule is simple - avoid the courts. Far better to apologise for a slip of the tongue early on than end up in a costly litigation. An apology for such is not an admission of a fault in overall service delivery. It is an apology for an individual's conduct on a single occasion. There is and should be no confusion on that. In recent times the paranoia over that point seems to have escalated beyond all reasonable proportion. Still it's helped the global economy by ensuring lots of money changes hands so perhaps I shouldn't knock it. 

All existing and any potential client or customer has the freedom and right to request a different member of staff to liaise with or they can vote with their feet and use a competitor and quite frankly should do so. Why waste time and money battling with an organisation that you don't like because of the staff they employ? It's a different matter entirely if the service they deliver or product they produce is at fault, then it is the time to challenge, complain and yes request compensation and perhaps call in the legal profession if all else fails - businesses do.

I am quite fortunate as although I am currently a PAYE employee I am also promoting WildeHeads as an independent and impartial entity. As an employee I do not challenge everything, instead I question what I do not understand then knuckle under to get the job done. As an independent entity I endeavour to prompt people to think beyond their immediate concerns to look at the bigger picture and how they and their contributions fit it.

As a former manager my view is that managers should almost throw problems back at their staff but with guidance provided to them to find solutions for themselves. In effect, you equip employees with the information they need to be successful and to develop and thereby become more productive. Some former staff of mine have matched my management level already precisely because of this approach and I am thrilled by it - indeed I expect some of them to become significant business managers over time. I personally delight in that because it was something that was developed in me by my former managers. It remains a puzzle to me why so many bosses fear staff progression and see it as a threat to their own positions. Not all of us wish to climb the career ladder. Some of us are quite content to stay at the level that suits us best and makes us happy thank you very much!

Not to challenge what we know to be wrong or what is making things difficult is, I feel, a mistake. We cannot improve if we do not question and evolve as a result. We do not adapt, we stagnate and businesses and people die. This is why I staunchly believe we all need to have a voice and use it, but to do so in a constructive way for the betterment of the whole of the business, industry, enterprise world and the global community. None of us can operate or indeed function successfully in isolation - not as individuals in the community or as business people be we workers or employers.

Tempted though I am to 'gossip' and waffle on to turn this into a thesis I'll draw to a close here.

Next week in my research files I will be providing a little more information on the methods we have at our disposal for business communication including a list of social media tools that are now available.

I hope I have provided some food for thought to help you hone your own communication needs. Above all stay calm and look this one up if you don't already know it, as it's proved a great guide to me on many, many, many occasions.

"If you can keep your head when..."

If by Rudyard Kipling 

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Article: The greater part of communication - listening

With both Irish and Yorkshire ancestry I could win an Olympic Gold for talking for England - bluntly. Sensitively blunt is how I often describe myself. In the business world we need both skills to be able to work effectively. However, I was born and have lived for most of my life in the south of England where curious communication habits have developed.

I am not a fan of jargon, abbreviations, acronyms, marketing spin or irrelevant waffle as a general rule. A spade is a spade not a manual earth transference device or METD for short! People who delight in looking down their noses at those who do not know the jargon or acronyms I find irritating as they either way they are on some private ego boosting trip of their own or into power mongering in my humble opinion (IHMO). My tendency is to invent a few terms of my own to remind them that they do not know everything and that they too are learners. I guess that's my mischievous Irish side.

That said industries develop a short-hand to help increase the speed by which information can be relayed and certain types of media such as Twitter and texting sometimes merit that short-hand. Then there are affectionate pet names for things which get to be common parlance such as grellies instead of grelcos or hoovers instead of vacuum cleaners. I happen to know that some parts of the IT industry in particular loves inventing quite rude acronyms to keep 'those in the know' happily amused and focussed on their work - fear not they are safely tucked away from the gaze of the public. As we acquire knowledge so the terms we use with our colleagues adapts.

We are also human so general chit-chat is I feel, an important and necessary element to include in a healthy working environment. We cannot gauge when is the right time to approach our superiors or when to inform a member of staff about anything without taking into account how busy they are or what mood they are in. If we want to work in a happy and more productive environment it makes sense to take an interest in everyone we work with anyway.

So, while I am a staunch advocate in working purely with facts, I also advocate ensuring those facts are placed in context as it helps inform decisions on not only what is the most appropriate route forward but also how a task should be actioned. Wording is crucial to effective communication... rumour has it that's why people get trained in the art of marketing as they should be the best at it at all times. However, no one is perfect 24 hours a day, every day (24/7).

A pause of my Irish prattling... time to illustrate a different communication style - that Yorkshire bluntness.

How to listen effectively
Fact: learnt in studies on counselling.
  1. Applicable to all verbal communication but also some written forms.
  2. The acid test on whether or not you have listened is to list all the adjectives (describing words such as productive, proactive lovely and successful) used by the person you were supposedly listening to. Oh, you think 'successful' is a factual statement do you? It is always a subjective (personal) perspective.
  3. Adjectives provide clues to where that person is coming from, what they know and what their preferred style of communication is.
  4. To hone and develop those skills, go on an Introduction to Counselling course.
Please note: this does not in any way imply that you have understood a single word you have heard!

Body Language
Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is but one form of learning how to read body language - there are plenty of others. Subconsciously we all pick up on body language, it's how we get our 'vibes' about others. We are often totally wrong in the detail because as humans we interpret our information according to what we have experienced ourselves and by what we choose to believe those experiences tell us about others.

Body language does at least give us a starting point - it's usually pretty obvious if someone is in pain, stressed, happy, excited, interested, unimpressed or bored from body language on its own. The 'why' behind those signals is where we err. To find out, try asking! In the working environment though it is not always either appropriate to ask or to tell people why they are interested or unimpressed. Different work situations require each person to behave differently in a set of generally understood (for the most part) but hardly ever voiced rules of conduct.

If a person is making a pitch for you to give them business their body language might say that they are unimpressed and bored with you. If so, you're not likely to stop and ask why!

Again to fully understand body language requires proper in depth training on a dedicated course.

The written word
Listening also applies to all forms of written communication. We can gain insights by noting the order in which information is conveyed, the vocabulary used, the structure (bullet pointed lists, paragraphed statements etc) and of course by what is missed out. Reading between the lines (i.e. interpreting what is put) again is at our own risk - we might be wrong. Omissions might be because of the writer being ill, distracted or phenomenally busy. Again and again I find I regularly have to remind people not to assume but to seek facts by asking for clarification.

I was tempted to now go on to how to put all this together by providing a myriad of examples listening skills and apply it to the above key areas of verbal, body language and written communication. However I feel it would be an insult to my reader's intelligence to do so and it is against my policy to spoon fed anyone anyway. Empowerment means providing the tools for people to do things for themselves.

A single example
I will leave you with one recent example though which covers all three. A volunteer offered their services to a charity. They were invited to an interview and the charity was delighted with them. On leaving the volunteer said that they were looking forward to helping in the ways discussed but beyond that they would want to be paid for their assistance. They later badly reinforced this with an email. The charity did not like this attitude even though many volunteer positions are the precursor to paid employment when positions become available. The result was the volunteer was rejected. Had the charity taken time to listen carefully or get clarification in writing from that email things might have turned out differently so that both parties would have profited from the arrangement.

The volunteer was so angry with the charity that I suggested they contact the head of it as I doubt they would be pleased. I also ensured that the volunteer understood that the person they were interviewed by was perhaps not the best person to represent the charity or its policies on volunteers. Fortunately the individual still believes in the charity but whether or not they have written to the head of it, I have no idea. I kind of hope so though as I loathe potential going to waste and it sounded like both parties had a lot to offer each other. Ah well... "Nowt as strange as folk" as my Yorkshire ancestors would say.

Even at its best language can only ever be an approximation of meaning, but by asking for clarification we greatly reduce misunderstandings and thereby costly errors in time, money, resources, stress levels and worthwhile relationships. Listening helps us all acquire more accurate and information to help shape our decisions. If avoidance of misunderstandings is ever a goal, investing time in letting others speak is an absolute must. That's how great things (miracles) can begin!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Founders Thoughts: Working Potential

It’s a strange thing that while it is generally acknowledged and accepted these days that different people have different ways of learning, what is barely acknowledged let alone acted on is that people also have different ways of preferring to work.

When it comes to learning we have realised that some people learn best from books, others from listening, visual aids or by hands-on practical methods. All too often this does not seem to enter into the thoughts of trainers in the workplace, but then that’s not surprising as few are ever put on a course to teach them how to train anyone. At times it is more akin to a miracle that novices in the workplace are able to learn anything.

However, formalised learning doesn't always work. I have been a volunteer for several projects where people of disadvantage, disability and who have experienced social exclusion have not and can not engage in mainstream methods of learning. An alarming number of illiterate people end up turning to crime. It would seem sensible to me to invent new ways of learning to help reduce these figures. We learn best when we feel people are interested in us as people.

My last blog was about how unemployment is a burden to all, and learning feeds into this. One of the reason for volunteering is to acquire new skills, hone or keep fresh existing ones to develop. A common pitfall is that volunteers can find themselves roped into, or expected to do things they never signed up to and end used for skills they already have. No surprise that employers find they lose those resources as a consequence.

Working environments and conditions

Everyone has a preferred working pattern and environment. Some people prefer silence to concentrate in, while others like noise; be it chatter or music. Some people prefer not to have long lunch breaks but prefer more regular shorter breaks, while others find the long lunch handy to fit in a bit a shopping and to come up for air by getting a change of scene. Breaks of some kind I believe are essential to clear your head so you can view things more objectively. Many a pitfall is avoided but taking a 5-10 minute break, even if it is spent reviewing progress so far.

Then there’s how busy the job is, whether an individual is a night owl or morning lark, are they stalwart plodders or rapid responders? Are they reactive or proactive? The list could be endless. How many employers though really take any of this on board? It seems odd not to when it’s in an organisation’s interests to increase productivity and efficiency by playing to its staff strengths rather than aim for the impossible in trying to force them to be what they are not.

Obviously an organisation shouldn’t enter into a free-for-all whereby staff do only the things that interest them, how they fancy. Laborious, mundane or daily tasks might never get done if that policy were adopted; result -
 the organisation collapses for lack a cohesive structure by which it functions. However, I do wonder if enterprises are not missing out on many a golden opportunity too. 

It always helps to get to know your staff, to help them feel at ease and supported and to be as flexible as possible about how they want to work. Staff often have hidden talents - remember when it was fashionable to show an interest in people's hobbies? And how do you fair on adhering to the agreements made that arise from regular reviews and appraisals of staff performance?

One thing that’s always puzzled me about some bosses... why employ anyone if you never trust them enough to leave them to do the job you employed them to do? Isn’t that a waste of your time and theirs? Far better to encourage them to have a go, be approachable and leave your door open if they need your advice. So long as they are ethical in their work, never upset anyone and deliver on the tasks set does it matter how they got there? Who knows they may have methods that could enhance your own thereby leading to both parties benefitting in ways never dreamed of.  Why some bosses are so fearful of the potential in the staff beneath them I will never fathom as they could take credit for nurturing it instead. 

For me, few things are as wonderful as the potential of a person; few things sadder than when that potential is not realised.