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7 Steps to Improve Team Communication

by: Shiv Sharma
7 Steps to Improve Team Communication

My problem with most of the tips about improving team communication is that they are too vague and self-evident. 

Of course, you should have an open-door policy, encourage transparency, and show empathy. But these are broad values and not specific actions. The purpose of this post is to give you 7 precise steps to improving team communication.

Some of these involve doing new things, while some are about getting rid of stuff that’s counterproductive. 

1. Have only one person accountable for one task

Most of the miscommunication and conflicts at work don’t arise out of malice or personal squabbles. They result from a lack of clarity and people stepping on each others’ toes. This happens because there many tasks and projects where accountability isn’t clearly defined. 

There should be only one person accountable for each task. 

Why only one? Because this makes it crystal clear who’s in charge of seeing the tasks through. It reduces ambiguity and the tendency to pass the buck when things go wrong. 

This is echoed by two most popular models on the subject – RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) matrix and Apple’s DRI model. 

This doesn’t mean that only one person should work on one task. There can be many people responsible for a task but only one should be accountable to the stakeholders. That’s why most project management tools clearly separate followers and assignees. 

Learn more about building a culture of accountability. 

2. Perform listening exercises with your team

I am not a big fan of team-building exercises and workshops. Most seem a bit superficial. But there’s one exercise that our CEO Reza Behnam conducted with us when he joined that has stayed with me. One that I found immensely useful.

He divided us into groups of two and asked us to talk to our partners for two minutes. During this time, the listener will pay full attention and never interrupt. After two minutes the roles are reversed. That’s it. A simple exercise that made me realize two things:

  • How in everyday conversations two minutes is seldom enough time to make a convincing point. However, when you realize that you won’t be interrupted and have the listener’s full attention, most people finish their thoughts before it,
  • Usually, we listen to retort. Before someone has stopped talking, our mind starts working on a reply. After all, we always want to put our best foot forward and it seems natural to craft replies in your head. Surprisingly, when you give unwavering attention to the speaker, your response magically gets more measured. 

Listening is a skill. And like every other skill it can only be honed with practice. Lack of listening skills is also the root of most misunderstandings at work. Listening is the foundation on which empathy rests. 

3. Don’t focus on work during team lunches and drinks

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that lunches/drinks and work cannot be combined. But in those cases, you should clearly mention in beforehand. For example, Let’s discuss your performance over a coffee tomorrow.

If you have organized a lunch or a drinks session to encourage team bonding, then it shouldn’t be focused on work. Let your team unwind, relax, and get a chance to truly bond with each other. When camaraderie increases in your team, they get better equipped to deal with difficult conversations at work. 

At the same time, you should be careful not to make after work socializing mandatory. Don’t penalize teammates who aren’t interested in it. It’s everyone’s personal choice. All the more reason to not discuss work during it.  

I have never believed in statements such as You shouldn’t be friends with your colleagues or Managers should always keep a distance from their direct reports. The problem isn’t that close relationships make it difficult to facilitate data-driven decisions. It’s not knowing how to make data-driven decisions, period. In my experience, I have observed people getting tremendous motivation from fruitful relationships at work. True professionals know how to handle it.  Needless to say, it boosts team communication. 

4. Understand cultural factors at play

A team that has developed great internal communication doesn’t have to look like a team with lots of laughter, workplace banter, and after-work activities. Every culture is different. In some cultures, people socialize at work more than others. It doesn’t help to force the Silicon Valley team culture all around the world.

For example, North American teams have a more candid style of communication while Asian teams tend to be more influenced by organizational hierarchies. There is no right or wrong way and forcing one culture to adapt something different is unlikely to yield results.

Instead, focus on the essentials of team communication – transparency, respect, and accountability. Everything else will fall into place. 

Learn more about the effect of country culture on corporate culture. 

5. Hire for culture fit

Many organizations have their own culture code. If the vision tells the team what to aim for, the culture code focuses on how to achieve it. 

Many managers talk about the company culture, preach it incessantly and even embody it and act as its exemplars. That’s not enough. Culture isn’t something that can be taught to anyone. You can’t hire based on just skills and hope to train your team to embrace your culture. 

I believe that the culture code’s importance lies in it guiding whom to hire. For example, if your organization preaches values such as ownership, candidness, and integrity, then hire people who show traces of such behavior. 

Hiring people who fit your company culture will inadvertently result in boosting team communication. That’s why most startups have at least some form of cultural screening to see if the candidate possesses the values it cherishes. 

6. More meetings ≠ Better communication

That’s why the knee jerk reaction of having more meetings to align the team better is counterproductive. Having too many meetings would not only affect the productivity of your team but make even important meetings prone to fatigue and apathy. 

Improving team communication doesn’t mean having more communication. It involves identifying specific causes of miscommunication in your team and addressing them.

An organization that reduces meetings to a minimum sends a signal that it values people’s time. This gradually becomes enshrined in its culture. When people realize that their own and others’ time is precious, they work towards communicating more effectively. 

Learn more about reducing meetings at work

7. Avoid matrix organization

Matrix organizational structure is a structure where an individual reports to more than one supervisor or manager. This is common in cross-functional teams. 

It is a recipe for friction and confusion in team communication. When any employee is answerable to two leaders, there bound to be communication challenges. People working in a matrix structure often have to invest significant effort into aligning their departmental and project goals. 

I don’t mean to completely undermine the importance of matrix organization. It certainly has merits. But if possible, organizations should try to refrain from it to avoid miscommunication. 

Contrary to popular opinion, Scrum teams are not matrix structures because Scrum masters are not the leaders of the Scrum teams. Many Scrum teams face communication challenges when their Scrum masters start dictating to-dos and they unknowingly turn into matrix organizations. 

I hope the tips were useful for you. If you are looking for one place to both collaborate on projects and communicate with your team, give Taskworld a shot. We’re giving a free 30-day trial. 

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