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How to Communicate Effectively

You’ve probably heard about the magic that is supposed to happen when you practice Management by Walking Around. This is a term coined by management guru Tom Peters in the 1980s when he noticed that good managers communicate a lot better with their teams than do bad, or even average, managers. And they do it in informal ways, like hanging around in the office and chatting with team members instead of having formal interaction sessions in their offices or boardrooms. Strong communication between manager and staff tends to lead to strong productivity.

The idea of Management by Walking Around is to listen more than you talk. Listening to the people who are doing the work—and struggling with a problem of one sort or another–provides you with a level of understanding that you probably wouldn’t get any other way. Steve Jobs used to respond to a huge number of customer complaints and questions so he could understand what problems people were having with Apple’s software and hardware and do something about them.

Listening is the first part of effective communication. Then, after you hear and understand what others are saying to you, you will need to speak or write back to them. These communications should be clear, to the point, and focused on the goals your team is trying to achieve.

Communicating effectively is at the heart of good management. Good managers can communicate goals and other instructions so clearly that their team members understand what they are expected to do and, if necessary, how to do it, as well as when the project is due and how their work will be evaluated. Good managers are also able to listen to problems or concerns and respond appropriately to help team members achieve their goals.

If communicating effectively is not your strong suit, here are some tips you might consider:

  • Find opportunities to listen to people from all levels of the organization. The higher up you are in the hierarchy, the more difficult this could be. But it’s worth the trouble. Chat with people, ask them what kinds of problems they are having at their jobs, and listen carefully to what they say. Work on not thinking about your reply while they’re still talking, but wait until they are finished before you decide how to respond.
  • If speaking in front of a group is a problem for you, consider enrolling in a class in public speaking or even taking an improv class. Your aim isn’t to be funny, but to be able to respond in the moment to questions or comments without getting flustered. Practice your speech in front of a mirror, or get someone who will be kind to critique it before you present it. Good speakers are not born, but made, through practice practice practice.
  • If writing is a problem for you, ask someone who is good at it to help you craft your written messages. These, too, will get better with practice.
  • It’s a lot more effective to deliver difficult messages in person, or even on the phone, than through email. When you communicate directly with people you can judge their reactions, respond immediately to any concerns, and convey the exact tone that you want. While it might be faster to send out an email, your message may not be as convincing or effective as it would if you took the time and effort to communicate it in person.
  • To make sure that your audience understands your message, ask them to summarize, in their own words, what they thought they heard you say. Use this opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings. The people to whom you were speaking might have been thinking about how they were going to respond instead of listening carefully to your words. When they realize they may need to repeat the message back to you, they will listen even more carefully in the future. And you will reap the benefits.