Communication within a business takes many forms. Just as a business owner will have a plan for their business goals, they should have a plan for their communication goals. It is a good idea to write down how the business will internally communicate all the information that needs to be distributed. Each business will have their own set of rules and regulations regarding what to communicate and how it should be done.
Keep the Lines Open
Management and staff should match the proper mode of communication with the information that needs to be sent in order to maximize impact. For example, articles or bulletins are best circulated on a routing slip throughout the office. Overall staff, department or management meetings should be used to cover the current key issues impacting the business or department. These meetings tend to be the main channel of communication between management and staff for most agencies. It should, however, be just one of the many arrows in the communication quiver.
Why Staff Meetings Fail - When a business owner is informed that the staff believes that there is a lack of communication, they often can't believe it because they have weekly staff meetings that last one to two hours. Unfortunately, quantity does not replace quality.
Staff meetings can often end up being a dumping session. Management dumps information on the staff and the staff dumps problems on management. What to do with that information is rarely discussed and issues are not usually resolved during the meeting.
The valuable information disclosed in staff meetings is often only through one-way communication. The staff is told what the customers or vendors are doing or what new program management is focusing on. This is important information and needs to be disseminated and properly discussed. Management, however, provides the staff only with the "headlines" and does not work with the staff on how this will impact them.
The staff usually gets to talk at the end of the meeting when management asks if there are any questions or comments. Typically, this ends up being dominated by the same people who like to talk about their problems. Management then takes their concerns under advisement and will supposedly report back later.
Employees should be required to come with a possible solution to the problem they want to discuss and not just use meetings to dump problems on management. Employees need to be pro-active throughout the communication process and management needs to establish and live up to high communication standards.
The first step in setting up an effective staff meeting is to set an agenda for each meeting. Meetings should be held on a regular basis and at a time that will not be a distraction. Usually early morning during the midweek is best. The meetings should last no longer than one hour.
The agenda needs to clearly spell out the key issues to be discussed including input from the staff. Everyone should see the agenda before the meeting, including copies of any supporting material, such as articles or action plans. The purpose of posting the topics before the meeting is to allow time for everyone to reflect on the key issues and start to think how it will impact the business and themselves.
Typically, when brand new information is brought up in a staff meeting, the employees think of the impact after the meeting. They feel that since their opinion was not heard it does not seem to matter. This is the nucleus of the feelings that employees have about the lack of communication in the business.
Employees resent when management makes changes that affect them, yet they were not consulted. Many times, the employee understands the issues better than the manager that makes the changes. Exploit the knowledge of the employees.
Management and staff both need to be prepared prior to the meeting to discuss the key issues. Meetings are much more effective when all the attendees know what will be discussed and what the goals are for that meeting. The biggest time waster in meetings is when new or side issues are brought up and the facts or objectives are not known.
When management has news regarding the vendors, regulations, customer service issues, etc., they need to clearly understand the following before the meeting: 1) what was happening in the past, 2) why is there a change, 2) who will be impacted by the change, 3) what is the plan for implementing the change, who is responsible and what is the time frame.
If an employee has an issue they want to bring up, it should be added to the agenda. It is their responsibility to collect the facts and to perform the first analysis before the meeting. Again, all issues brought up by anyone must have an initial solution at the same time, otherwise it should not be added to the agenda.
The standard format for discussing each issue should include the introduction, time for discussion and an agreement on what the next step will be. If the problem needs more than a few minutes to resolve, then an individual or committee needs to be appointed with a date scheduled to report back.
All employees that attend seminars, conventions and association meetings must provide the group that would benefit from the information, a summary of the event. This way the valuable information one person learned is now imparted on the rest of the staff.
The open discussion period in a meeting should be short and limited to any accomplishments made or any lessons learned since the last meeting. Problems not on the agenda should be deferred to the next meeting, until the proper procedure is followed.
If the business is large enough, each department, such as sales meetings, manufacturing, administration, etc., should hold separate staff meetings. Issues and problems unique to any department should be addressed by that department's meeting rather then the general staff meeting. The frequency of general staff meetings should be reduced if department meetings are held.
The Forest and the Trees
Let everyone in the business know the big picture of the business. Management needs to circulate the business plan and the sales and marketing goals. Sensitive detail can be omitted, but the staff needs to know the overall vision of management.
Employees like to know that their efforts are going to a greater good. They need to see that there is an ultimate goal in mind and they are a part of the plan. Employees are more likely to do a better job when they know that they are needed and the direction they should take.
A separate meeting or retreat at least once a year with at least key managers and producers should be held to review these plans and discuss the current status of the business, where it is going and how it will get there.
Knowing the big picture also helps define the little pictures. Business goals need to be based on reasonable and attainable goals of the individuals of that business. The staff needs to know what management expects from them. The employee, however, should also set his or her own goals; otherwise it is management's goals not the employee's goals.
Individual goals, progress and shortfalls should be discussed in private at least twice a year. The annual review is the time when the goals are set, but a mid-year check-up is needed to keep the employee on track and management in the loop. The employee should understand that they should bring up any problems that are impacting their performance immediately and not wait until review time.
Each business should have the following basic rule regarding communication. Each person is responsible for the proper, timely and efficient transfer of his or her communication. The staff is not excused because they were afraid to talk to management. Management is not forgiven because they did not have the time to listen to staff or properly analyze the issue.
In a business, just like in personal and social situations, poor or misunderstood communication is the root of most problems. Even the lack of communication is communicating something about the people or the circumstances. One needs to go back to the cause of a problem, not just the symptoms. Poor morale or unproductive workers is not the problem it is often the symptom of poor communication.
Successful firms have effective communication between employees, management, vendors and clients. Very little time is wasted repeating information or correcting errors that result from poor communication.
Great communication skills can be learned. An easy path in the direction of learning these skills is to set up a system where everyone in the firm understands how communication will take place. Staff meetings are one step along that path. So, learn to communicate effectively and watch your success grow!
Bill Scheduler is a business consultant and coach with 20 years of experience working with small business owners and individuals.