Communication Breakdown

A few weeks ago, I talked about the general structure I’ve found helpful when having individual conversations. Hopefully, I’ve also stressed the importance of good communication on more than one occasion. However, to date I haven’t talked about the overall framework of communication that I think is important to have in a healthy, functional team.

This is now a part of your job

First and foremost, it is incredibly important that you always be available to talk with your team members. This can be challenging for both parties, but it’s crucial to arrange things so this is possible. Once you have, keep paying attention to being available and approachable to make sure you’re not tacitly creating a culture where team members don’t feel comfortable talking with you. As an introvert, I find I have to be constantly diligent in my behavior and intonation when I communicate with team members to try and make sure that I’m not sending the wrong message. This is especially important when communicating with team members is interrupting other tasks I’m working on. (In my experience, this happens a lot. Get used to it. It’s a core part of your job as a manager.) Two things can send the wrong message here.

1) When you are interrupted, pay special attention to your immediate response to the interruption. It is important to not come off as exasperated or annoyed. That right there will send exactly the wrong message, in case it wasn’t obvious. So keep an eye out for that, and if you do catch yourself behaving incorrectly, acknowledge it immediately and apologize to the individual right away. As I’ve mentioned before, we all make mistakes, and to create a healthy culture it’s important that you be the first to acknowledge your own mistakes.

2) Frequently, team members may not feel comfortable interrupting you because they feel you’re too busy to talk. But this is part of your job and regardless of how busy you actually are, talking with your team is one of the most important responsibilities you have. Barring the office being on fire, there are very few things that will be more important. 😉 Be sure to make it incredibly clear that you are always available and that team members are welcome and even encouraged to talk with you. This should be achieved by making it official policy as well as paying attention to #1 above. In addition, I’ve found that people will often interrupt me by starting with “I know you’re really busy…” or words to that effect. As well as watching your tone as mentioned above, make sure to reassure them that the interruption is not only OK, but encouraged. I don’t think I can stress enough how important communicating with your team is, so make sure you’re creating an environment that facilitates it.

We’re going to talk a lot

In addition to being available for ad-hoc conversation, it’s important to have regular, frequent communication with your team members. Exactly how frequent can be decided by you, but what I like to do is let each team member set the frequency of communication. For some team members that maybe daily, others weekly, though I feel you should never go more than 2 weeks without talking with a direct team member. Anything beyond that and it becomes very challenging for you to give useful feedback and for you to receive useful feedback. Our memories are far from perfect, and the longer things move into the past the harder it is for us to draw useful information from them.

The most common method for achieving the goal of regular, frequent communication is the 1 on 1. Note that for those team members who desire more frequent communication, I’m not suggesting daily 1 on 1’s for what it’s worth. That frequent of communication should and likely will be organic. 1 on 1’s should be weekly or every two weeks depending on the person. If you’re managing a larger team, I find that it’s still very important to have 1 on 1’s with everyone within your organization but I expect the frequency to drop for non-directs. From my experience, I’ve found that weekly to bi-weekly 1 on 1’s with my leads and monthly 1 on 1’s with everyone else worked best. I’ve never managed an organization larger than that, but I’d still expect to having some sort of formal regular communication with everyone within the org.

What does a good 1 on 1 look like? I’ve worked at numerous companies as well as talked with plenty of people in the industry. From what I’ve seen and heard, 1 on 1s vary wildly in usefulness depending on the company. Some places were just going through the motions to check a box. Others treated it as a way to just get status reports from team members. Neither of these are really useful or appropriate in my opinion. My goals with 1 on 1’s are:

  • Receiving feedback. To me, this is the most important goal of 1 on 1’s. Team members should feel comfortable giving feedback on how things are going. Are they sufficiently challenged? Are they having issues? Are you, their manager, supporting them appropriately? Do they see problems with the overall state of the product or the company? Are there problems with other team members? All of these are important things to be discussing with your team members on a regular basis.
  • Discussing career goals. The second most important goal is discussing and planning career development with your team members. For smaller companies, this will likely cover what sorts of tasks they’d like to work on. For example, someone who’s been writing physics code their whole career may like to move into AI or graphics. This will be a great opportunity for them to discuss their preference and for the two of you to formulate a plan of how to make that transition. Of course, they maybe perfectly happy where they are, but it’s important that if they do want to make a change that they have a forum where they feel comfortable expressing that desire. For larger companies, this will likely also include long term goals in terms of career path like moving into management or making laterals moves, for example from programming to product management.
  • Giving feedback. Good or bad, either way it’s really important that team members are aware of what sort of job they’re doing. Hopefully this is just “you’re doing a good job” and bringing up an example from the previous week or two. “Well done on completing feature X.” “You did a good job handling the issues that came up in last weeks design meeting.” Whatever it is, I can’t stress enough that you need to give that feedback even if it is always just “you’re doing a good job”. Positive feedback is good for everyone. If it isn’t positive feedback, I suggest you check out my Accountability post from a few weeks ago for some pointers on how best to handle that situation.

Hopefully this will start to give you a good idea of what frequent and regular communication looks like, and help you understand how it contributes to a healthy work environment. But most importantly, get out there and start talking! Until next time.

Know of other successful communication strategies? Agree or disagree with anything I’ve said? Questions? Let me know in the comments below or via TwitterFacebook or email contact at captainbyrank dot com.

Cheers,
Shaun

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