Statistics have shown us that ensuring employees are engaged is essential to leading high performance teams. There are dozens of ways to cultivate employee engagement, all of which have their own lists of pros and cons. While each organization must choose the methods of engagement that work best according to its unique composition, some practices are applicable to almost every business. Perhaps the foremost of these is communication.
On virtually every employee engagement survey you’ll ever encounter, “communication” receives negative reviews. Frequently the problem is organizational silos, which can prevent effective communication between different functions. Poor communication can then lead to overlapping work, redundant responsibilities, and misalignment of expectations.
Employees will frequently resign themselves to poor communication, accepting it as a natural, if unfortunate, organizational phenomenon. Others consider communication as one of those “soft skill” that the Human Resources department comes in to discuss periodically, but they fail to work on exercising good communication habits on a daily basis. In fact, good communication habits do need to be practiced every day, and practice involves more than simply emailing appropriate people at appropriate times. A number of communication mishaps that tend to hurt employee engagement and team performance are due not to a lack of communication altogether, but to communication that is simply ineffective.
Often the greatest bane of a high performance team is the number of ineffectual meetings its members are required to attend.
These meetings are frequently in place to aid communication, ensuring that all team members are on the same page. Yet too often they simply end up wasting team members’ time, causing them to become disengaged and hurting performance overall. One method organizations have adopted for eliminating time-wasting meetings is the idea of “organic communications” – that is, replacing the formal process of attending meetings, debriefing the meeting, etc. with quicker check-ins. Some organizations have implemented stand-up meetings, which have been proven more effective than traditional sit-down meetings, while other organizations hold five-minute meetings, in which the meeting must end at five minutes, regardless of where the information flow is. There are different approaches, but the idea is ultimately better communication.
Cross-department communication is another challenge for many organizations. Again, however, when it comes to employee engagement, the issue is often rooted in ineffective communication, rather than lack of communication. Sometimes organizations will try to foster cross-department communication with newsletters or weekly update emails. For a number of reasons, those ideas can sometimes hurt more than they help. Evidence shows that humans in general are not necessarily good at focusing at work; by some estimates, we only focus six hours per week (yes, that’s per week). Aside from email, the average employee also checks additional communication devices up to 150 times per day, and each time it can take as many as 23 minutes to refocus on the original project. An employee newsletter, e-mail recaps of meetings, or anything else designed to bolster communication by giving employees something else to look at is frequently not going to be very effective.
Communication has proven a challenge for organizations for centuries, so we cannot expect the issue to be solved overnight. One of the best ways to approach communication is to apply actionable analytics to it – determine where things could improve, what employees prefer, and immediate steps that can be taken.
Another way that organizations can bolster communication is through effective knowledge management. Some would argue that knowledge management is the future of business, especially in the context of Baby Boomers retiring en masse in the next 10-15 years and taking a good deal of contextual company knowledge with them. Knowledge management systems capture the knowledge and insight within your organization and present it in a way that is both accessible and actionable. There are thousands of these systems out in the world now, so the key is to find the system that works for your particular organization and determine how to effectively transfer your organization’s knowledge to that system.
Knowledge transfer is a cornerstone of modern-day high-performing teams. Classical management theory used to hold that it was better for leaders to insulate some or most of their team members from certain aspects of information. In the modern era, however, that idea has been turned on its head. Consider the advice of Jason Stirman, an early adopter in Twitter who is now helping to shape Medium as an organization:
Stirman hit another wall trying to shield his team from external drama and politics. “Classic management advice and all my mentors told me that insulating your team from things so they won’t worry will make them more productive and happier,” he says. “But they just got angry, and confused, and disconnected. I was constantly censoring all this information and they were way happier when they knew everything.”
Far from aiding team performance, compartmentalizing knowledge only leads to frustration and disengagement, which greatly affects team performance. Knowledge management can help bring information to a more universal place, which in turn can help employees feel connected to the organization. This engagement is then directly correlated to team performance.
Improving both internal and cross-department communication will boost productivity and bind team members closer to each other and to the rest of the organization. Fostering effective knowledge management will create trust and further engage employees. These employees, in turn, will be ready to form high performance teams. Understanding the importance of communication is thus critical to leading high performance teams. Recognizing that poor communication stands in the way of high performance teams is half the battle.