Question, Listen, Discuss and Debate

Posted by: in Communication Strategy, Corporate and Strategy, executive insights on March 5, 2013

Good communication practices encompass a back-and-forth exchange of information and ideas where a manager questions and listens as much as or more than speaking and conveying information – a continuum of communication, if you will.

But if listening and seeking input is so important, why do so many managers fall short in that department?

Likely the short answer has to do with finite time: managers have much to do and not enough time in which to do it. So in the communication continuum, it often feels more critical for them to disseminate information and data to their teams, and then move onto the next task.

Certainly there are times in the typical workweek when that is necessary. But the manager that falls into the habit of justifying the overuse of one-way communication is on track for failure down the road.

In this era of Twitter, Facebook, email, and text messages, we have become accustomed to taking the easy route when communicating with our teams. An email to all team members alerting them to a change of process or policy is certainly appropriate. But when email blasts become a manager’s principal means of communicating to his/her team, then he/she is no longer communicating. He/she is spewing. Such information downloads fall on deaf ears.

The Team’s Value to the Organization

The reason we build teams of people within our organizations is to achieve the excellence that several people working together can attain what the individual working alone cannot. So it stands to reason that the person managing that team wants to tap into the best that his players bring to the mix.

Questioning, listening and engaging in proactive dialogues is how the best managers do that. So what exactly does that look like, ideally?

We’re talking ideal circumstances because we have to be cognizant that the sturm und drang of the day-to-day business can sometimes overwhelm and cancel out the good intentions of striving for excellent communication.

So let’s assume that the periodic ebb and flow of busy-ness on the job allows for contemplative moments when one-on-one conversations or productive team meetings can occur. The well-organized manager knows best when those times are most likely to be available – first thing Monday mornings; at the end of the billing cycle; before the next production run gets started, etc.

The wise manger with foresight finds those periodic opportunities and works them into the calendar. Those times become the most valuable of the workweek or month. When the manager and team members are prepared, much can be accomplished, and the ball figuratively moved down the field.

Preparation is Key

Preparation on both sides is critical but means something a bit different, though it follows parallel tracks. The manager, in particular, should come to these regular meetings with an open mind, ready to hear and learn things she/he may not expect, as well as a desire to discover and discern specific information related to issues of the moment, in particular the current challenges and opportunities the team is dealing with.

A significant component of the manager’s preparation is staying plugged into the larger organization and the outside world that impacts the business as a whole. He/she should be able to bring that information to her/his team and make it relevant to their day-to-day efforts.

These meetings are also chances to reflect together on how their unit might work better with other units, how they might better collaborate to contribute to the organization’s larger purpose. To that end, it is the manager’s responsibility to bring in the outside view that is not regularly conveyed into the confines of a unit’s figurative walls.

For their part, the employees’ responsibility is to come to these discussions with ideas, insights and open minds. Their preparation is best achieved over the course of doing their jobs, making note of problems that recur or opportunities they sense are not being fully exploited. These are the gems that the alert manager with good listening skills looks for and hopes for.

At the same time, the manager encourages the sharing of bad news along with the good because he/she knows that responding negatively to the employee who brings the bad news will only discourage others from doing so in the future, which in turn leads to small problems festering into insurmountable crises.

Teams should learn together, with the manager posing open-ended questions that force them to think through a challenge or opportunity and arrive at their own answers. They then share those answers and begin a discussion and debate.

Together, the team learns while often coming up with practicable solutions, or uncovering new ways of looking at and thinking about challenges and opportunities. At the same time, the individual employee becomes more engaged in the business, feeling he/she is an active contributor to its larger purpose, and that her/his voice is heard. It’s all good. It’s effective communications.

By: Jack LeMenager

Jack is a director in the Corporate & Strategy practice of WCG, a unit of W2O Group.

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