Young men in the office

By Scott R. Schreiman

You’d think we’d all be master communicators. All we do all day is communicate. Talking, chatting, texting, emailing. Despite how often we do it, we’re still challenged to do it well.

In the workspace, bad communication undercuts our ability to execute. If we’re not communicating well with our employees, they can’t execute either. As a small business owner, your vision, priorities and methods are clear to you. Don’t assume they’re as clear to your employees unless you see evidence they’re executing to it.

Any leader worth her salt can share her vision, provide guidance and direction, and do so in a way that her employees buy-in eagerly. That takes adept communication skills. Here are my seven tips for communicating better with your employees.

1. Don’t bury the lede. 

Whatever your main point is, start there. If you need something specific from your employees, ask for it clearly. Be direct. Be concise.

2. Be a better listener

There’s a reason “Undercover Boss” is so popular.  Everyone kind of gets it that no matter how tapped in the boss is, there’s just some in-the-trenches knowledge only employees have. Small business owners can’t go undercover, but they can listen.

Effective communication, by definition, is a two-way street. Start out by making sure you’re hearing the messages your employees are trying to deliver to you. Make sure they feel comfortable expressing their observations and ideas to you. You don’t have to take every suggestion, but don’t create a sour workplace by making the risks of an employee speaking out too great.

Another part of being a better listener is stop multi-tasking while someone’s trying to get information into or from you. Stop thinking for a minute about whatever meeting or client is on your mind, and devote 100% of your attention to them.

You can only respond effectively if you understand clearly what they’re trying to say. If they’re not being clear, ask them. You won’t be seen as a good boss, as someone others want to work for, if you can’t interact with them successfully. And that can cost you and your business money.

A survey conducted by HR consultancy Tower Watson, found that companies with employees who communicate well are more productive and experience lower rates of employee churn. That’s logical. People hate not being heard. If your employees come in every day feeling like nothing they say matters to you, they’ll start looking for better options around the corner.

3. Understand your personal communication style

We all have our own communication preferences regarding the words and medium we use. We’re also communicating nonverbal information through our tone and body language. Are you an eye roller? A head shaker? Do you use a lot of corporate-speak?

Take a good look at your own communication style preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. Don’t just listen to others. Listen to yourself. We all have pet phrases we get into the habit of using. Do those phrases help or hurt your message? Do they help people listen to you more attentively or tune you out?

Does your language build bridges? Encourage conversations? Inspire ideas? Or do people shut down? Ignore you? Talk over / past / around you? These are all clues as to whether or not your employees value you and what you have to say.

When you see that your message isn’t getting across, don’t automatically assume the recipient is the communication obstacle. It might be you. If it keeps happening, figure out how you can connect better with this person or in the specific setting. And that’s the key:  create a connection, find a common thread you can both relate to authentically.

4. Pick your moments

This one is so important if you want to be an effective communicator. Sometimes it’s not how you’re saying it – the problem is when it’s being said.

If you’re concerned someone isn’t pulling their weight or making some mistake, raise it directly with them, not in front of other employees.  In a small business, you may be able to have a sense of what urgent matters any specific employee has on his plate right now. If he’s working on an urgent issue for you, don’t distract him with other messages that could wait.

Other bad moments? How about the all-hours emails and calls. An “always open” work environment wears people down.

Last, have some empathy for someone who’s stressed out. We all go there. Make some allowances when someone is obviously having a bad day. Even for those who are master communicators – stress can make idiots of us all. Unless an employee is being genuinely subordinate or disruptive, let one or two snaps go. Confront it only if it becomes a habit.

5. Build relationships, but stay professional

Of course there’s room to talk about non-work stuff with employees. Everyone work so closely together in a small business, it really can feel like a family. Getting personal at the right times helps us see employees as individuals.

But there’s personal and there’s personal. You set the tone for your employees. If you don’t want them chatting about their personal life on a team chat channel, don’t you do it. It’s easy to cross this line with our business digital tools, since they feel and act like our social digital spaces. We need to remember they’re not appropriate for personal communication.

Then of course, there are legal issues to consider. Never get that personal. It’s bad business and bad behavior.

6. Stay constructive

When you do have to deliver a difficult message, stay constructive. The goal in communicating this message is to get a better result. Embarrassing someone or getting aggressive with them isn’t going to lead to a better result. No one shows up wanting to do a bad job.

7. Address mistakes

Whenever there’s a miscommunication that’s in the way of progress, address it quickly. Letting it fester doesn’t make future communications any easier.

Always be the first to admit whenever you’ve made a mistake. Apologize sincerely. Fix the mistake as best you can. By the same token, if someone else makes a mistake, don’t rub it in. Be gracious. Learn to forgive. Because holding on to anger only hurts you — not them.

Communicating thoughtfully, directly, and regularly, builds your credibility so when you have more important or difficult messages to share, your employees can hear you.

As you work to improve your own communication skills, keep one guiding principle in mind: treat others with respect and consideration (aka “don’t be a jerk”). If you can master that, people will definitely be more open to what you’re saying.

Scott Schreiman is the founder and CEO of, an online collaboration solution. Follow him at @scottschreiman.