Stop, Collaborate and Listen!

June 19, 2007

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Meeting today's challenges of global competition means leveraging all your company's intellectual assets around the idea of unified common processes and systems. So if the knowledge shared between employees and employers plays such a crucial role in a company's future, why do so many of them continue to have poor workplace communication?

You might think we rank our pay level as highest priority in the workplace. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, this isn't the case. While one in three employees are disgruntled to the point of contemplating quitting their jobs, according to a study by Discovery Surveys (via Workforce Management), the top four reasons for dissatisfaction are:

1) Management's failure to listen to employee input/act on suggestions; 2) Low pay; 3) Lousy internal communications; and 4) Failure to recognize and reward top performance.

Although pay level is one of our top concerns, communication and recognition issues dominate the list. And a European study recently showed that 95 percent of workers would like their manager to analyze their task problems together with them, as we pointed out in May.

For the electronics industry alone, "One byproduct of tighter schedules and budgets is the decrease in collaborative dialog with engineering management," EE Times notes.

According to EE Times statistics in May and a 2001 MIT study on process improvement ("Nobody Ever Gets Credit for Fixing Problems That Never Happened"):

Engineers who used to lead breakthroughs in productivity by taking risks and succeeding, however, now find it taboo to discuss solutions "outside the box" with management, especially when new spending or new tooling is involved. Engineers and engineering management can have frank, substantive conversations about factors affecting engineering productivity. This means engineers should persistently voice scheduling and risk realities, while offering suggestions for improving capabilities.

As for senior management, they must hear engineers' good judgment on design, schedule and resource alternatives, as opposed to reviewing a lot of data sheets, suggests EE Times. "Managers should recognize and reward engineers who take the initiative to advance design methodologies and to learn new skills, rather than those who simply work overtime to bail out delayed projects."

Beyond productivity, there is the issue of turnover. "Having a boss who listens constructively to a worker's on-the-job problems was found to be the strongest predictor of loyalty to an organization, accounting for fully 26 percent of their wanting to stay or go," according to a Leadership IQ survey noted by IndustryWeek in April.

Given the outcry for more and better communication, it is important to remember that better communication doesn't require a huge capital investment. Rather, it is mostly a matter of changing habits.

Some tips and tactics to foster communication in the workplace from's Greg Brown include:

Get out ahead of the information. Whether it's informal "town hall" gatherings, company blogs, a company newsletter or internal electronic mail, effective business communication is important.

Understand that office chatter is normal. If the watercooler talk is about the latest movie or the game, fine. But it will also be about the company, prospects, promotions and the like. Within reason, as workplace communication goes, this is a good thing. Imagine if no one cared enough about their work to even discuss it.

Give your people permission to talk and ask questions. Be in the hallways, stop by social events (but don't linger!), be available — and effective business communication happens. In terms of employee communication, an open door policy is good. Managing by walking around is better.

In the end, long-term productivity gains typically take place when organizations make a conscious effort to improve and reward communicative relationships between not only engineers and managers, but between all employees and employers.


Failed Communication Drives Workers Out by Gary Kranz Workforce Management, May 29, 2007

Commentary: "Let's change the dialogue between engineers, managers" by Kathryn Kranen EE Times, May 31, 2007

Want Loyal Workers? Give Them a Reason to Trust You. by Adrienne Selko IndustryWeek, April 9, 2007

Guide to Effective Business Communication Skills by Greg Brown

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