Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Workplace Communications: 6 Tips On What NOT To Do

"Now, explain  it to me like I'm a four-year-old."*  
           -  Joe Miller, "Philadelphia", 1993.

That was the memorable line, declared with notable flourish, by John Miller, during that courtroom scene in the movie "Philadelphia", released in 1993. You may recall that Miller was played by the veteran Oscar-awarded actor, Denzel Washington. I am sure that Twitter buffs would approve of the short, powerful headline, (91 characters in total), which  helped to convince the jury to decide in favour of  Andrew Beckett, Miller's client, whose character was played by Tom Hanks, another Oscar winner.  Recall again that during the deliberations behind closed doors, one juror echoed Miller's line, almost verbatim. Ah, the power of effective communications...


The term seems simple enough on the surface. Surely communicating is as easy as speaking, or as obvious as writing down instructions, rules, memos etc? It should not be that difficult. As it turns out, it is really difficult to effectively communicate, especially at the workplace.

This is because of what I have often referred to as the 'human element'. The workplace is awash with people with different personalities, backgrounds, cultural differences and ideologies. One is often dealing with people in situations where there is incomplete information, limited time, or both. This makes communication very difficult, and if not handled properly, poor communications, as research in organisational behaviour has suggested,  unfortunately open the doors to all sorts of inter-personal conflicts in terms of negative attitudes and behaviours, leading to reduced productivity, or at the very least, a drop in morale. So in essence, it is both good sense and good business sense to get communications right.

There are evidently three types of communications: the written, the oral and body language cues.

However, what is often not realised, and this is the most common mistake at the workplace, is that oral and written communication are used the same way. They shouldn't. The language employed in all oral communications should be different from the more formal, written style, even if the context remains the same. When tensions are high or relationships are strained, oral communications might be more accommodating, given that one's speech could be modified when observing the body language of the other party.

Let us imagine a simple scenario whereby an oral statement is spoken in a low, controlled register:

"I am concerned about the delays in the project. I think that we should address these concerns in a meeting at X period".


This statement is likely to be considered as a practical, reasonable request and should ease the flow of discussion at the suggested time.

By contrast, a written memo stated in an almost staccato tone, such as the one below, may immediately convey an accusatory air, making the recipient defensive and guarded even before the issue is addressed:

"Delays in the project delivery would need to be addressed in the meeting billed for X period".

In the second scenario, unless the person requesting the meeting is in a position of high authority such as that of a director, CMO/CEO, emotions such as anger, annoyance, or disinterest might simmer beneath the surface during the meeting, thereby rendering it unproductive. This is usually the case if the parties involved are close in ‘rank’ or influence.

While there are obviously circumstances whereby one type of communication  must be used in place of the other, (such as press releases for specific purposes, communications in times of crises/scandals and other official scenarios), it is useful to know just how to communicate at the workplace. It is also useful to note that in general, communications should be about speaking, listening, reading and deciphering - to both physical and non-physical cues - as well as to what is said and what is not being said.

I believe that effective communications are both an art, (they could be creative, adaptive and flexible); and a science, (they could be procedural, precise and methodical); depending on the purpose of the communications, the target audience and the circumstances surrounding the communications. As with most things, regular practice makes perfect.

However, below are 6 tips of what not to do at the workplace regarding communications:

1) Do not assume that your target audience understands industry-specific jargon

This should hold true even  if  one  is  giving a presentation to industry experts, professionals  in the field or to Management.

Simplicity  is key.

While one might not be able to avoid using certain terms, there is great merit in simplifying communications for ease of flow and for a more thorough engagement from the audience.

At the workplace, if you also consider the possibility of having to conduct a presentation to a cross-functional group involving, for instance, colleagues from human resources, the legal division and operations, then you would appreciate the importance of simplifying and clarifying communications. Whatever the circumstances, keeping communications simple is crucial to delivering the greatest impact. With the exception of a few cases, such as for leisure or entertainment, people generally have short attention spans. So do not waffle on.

2) Do not engage in oral outbursts

This is a common faux pas at the workplace and both employees and managers are guilty of this unacceptable tirade.

When stress levels rise, so do tempers. A simple 'disagreement' between colleagues soon degenerates into an oral outburst, complete with personal jabs or insults and may even lead to a physical altercation. At such a point, there is a complete breakdown in communication; nothing gets resolved and there is a real possibility of lingering resentment; even if both parties agree to get past the incident. If they are forced to work together on a team project, a lack of trust and emotional distance could have a negative effect on the project's outcome. Not many people can handle working with people they do not like. This becomes even more difficult if the colleagues are on the same grade or in similar positions.

Managers and supervisors are also guilty of this behaviour. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for an angry boss to yell at his subordinates. I have heard, in utter disbelief, about oral abuses being flung at employees with reckless abandon, often leaving emotional scars and diminished self-worth; all which actually reduce performance. This behaviour is not helpful to anyone and has far-reaching implications on employee morale and productivity. 

Do not do it.

The workplace is, (or should be), a professional environment. People have a right to be treated with respect. By all means, voice your disappointments, disapprovals, annoyances to the appropriate channels but leave your ego at home. (A word of caution: only take this action when the annoyances etc. relate to or impact your function/duties as no one appreciates a whiner). Also choose your battles. Reporting the same problem, with the same individual, for three consecutive weeks, makes you look like the problem, instead of the victim.

It is also important, when reporting problems, to phrase your discontent in a low, controlled  tone, devoid of theatrics and to keep the complaint as brief as possible, clearly outlining how the attitudes or behaviours of Mr. Y negatively impact your work and reduce your unit's Key Performance Indicators.  Even Management, sometimes uninterested with inter-personal conflicts, would see the business sense in resolving the situation...and quickly.

3) Do not put on airs to reflect your status

So you have been promoted to a much-coveted position, by the strength of your hard work and quite frankly, due to pure luck given that five other equally-qualified colleagues were also being considered.

Congratulations. But now comes the difficult part - remaining humble, being sensitive to others and adjusting your communication style to reflect both empathy and responsibility. No easy feat. 

Since you are likely to be watched closely by your former colleagues, over whom you now preside, your communications, verbal and non-verbal cues etc. would be the easiest signals of how you function. So your use of speech, the way you write, your body language, tone of voice etc. would all be discreetly assessed.

For example, if you are going to be an effective team leader, you may need to change your communication method and adopt one more attuned to the specific scenario in which you see yourself. Not many are able to do this as they do not feel a need to be apologetic about their successes. Still, adopting a new communication style would become crucial for a supervisory or leadership position, because you would be assessed by Management on how well, or badly, you are able to lead and motivate your team to produce results.

You would not succeed if you instinctively put on airs. In fact, the more successful you are, the humbler you should become. 

Arrogance is the absolute bane of career advancement.

So celebrate your successes privately and among trusted family and friends. But once again, leave your ego at the door.

4) Do not submit grammatically inept reports

What I have come to realise is that many people are reluctant to draft written communications, and when they do, there are several grammatical mistakes.

What I have not been able to determine is whether poor writing skills are linked to the level of education, a lack of appropriate training, or downright laziness. I am no linguist but I find something rather odd. Some with advanced degrees or seasoned experts and public speakers, write books or publish manuals loaded with many grammatical errors, ranging from syntax to semantics. I have seen mistakes in newspapers as well. This development has often led me to ask in incongruity: what are the editors doing?

Unfortunately weak writing skills are a poor fit for professional excellence at the workplace. One might be forgiven for one spelling error, even though grammar checks with Microsoft Word should eliminate most errors. However, a document fraught with spelling errors, wrong use of synonyms and punctuation blunders, not only distracts the reader from the important content, but actually fails to make a good argument. Many a recruiter or HR professional would cite grammatical errors for many a CV being discarded. Business proposals would not be taken seriously because of such a problem; requests for bank loans would be turned down.

People have busy schedules and a poorly penned document communicates, (unintentionally), a profound lack of respect for the time of the recipient. For the snotty types, it could also be seen as an insult to their intelligence.

Simply put:  keep handing in grammatically inept reports and watch that promotion repeatedly slip through your fingers. We would not all become bestseller authors. Nevertheless, you might not be taken seriously, your brilliance notwithstanding, (and this is a hard pill to swallow), if you cannot be bothered to revise your reports and make appropriate changes. If this is a real and ever-present threat to your professionalism, then enrol in refresher classes or writing courses, or hire someone skilled or suitably-qualified, to draft your reports. But do  something about it as you cannot wish this problem away. 

5) Do not appear unprofessional

This would  encompass everything  that would scream 'unprofessional' - from the way you dress to the language you use, even during 'down times' at work and most especially, during meetings, forums or other interactions with co-workers and Management.

This point is closely related to #2 above but is also associated with the issue of competence. Sometimes, competence is assessed by the quality of feedback given, or the absence thereof.

One of my pet peeves, while I was employed, was the feedback other professionals could not be bothered to give. Where there is a lack of information, especially between team members or colleagues, frustration levels rise and nothing gets done. The mistake often made is that people tend to wait for complete information or favourable responses before informing relevant parties. This is always counter-productive.

If you do not give factual and prompt feedback, you would be perceived as incompetent, very unreliable and by extension, unprofessional. This development would not earn you brownie points. Remember that perception is important to your career. Who do you think your boss is likely to rate highly in a performance review? You, who would rather wait until you receive all the facts, or your extremely annoying colleague who gives blow-by-blow account of every project and who consistently supplies clear information and makes suggestions even before he is asked?


To recap: dress appropriately for work; share information as soon as you receive it; call when you say you would do so and respect the valuable time of others. In other words, be professional.


6) Do not disclose secrets or confidential information

The likelihood is slim that you would be served with a subpoena to appear in  court to give testimony in a fraud case of epic proportions. You are also unlikely to be held hostage at gun point and  obligated to divulge confidential information. Therefore, it is generally a bad idea to reveal secrets or betray someone's confidence, no matter how 'juicy' the information is.

This is often difficult to do in the acceptable culture of 'water-cooler' gossip but sometimes, silence is your best defence. Not only would you avoid being drawn into the often-complicated web of misinformation, exaggerated facts and the truth, but you would also be perceived as trustworthy and honest.

Besides, what goes around often comes around, and a careless comment would not only cost you allies at the workplace but there is also a real possibility of your secrets being revealed. Karma is what some call it. This could be 'mistakenly' done in a leaked email, in a text message, or even verbally by the person whose confidence you broke or by anyone else. It could get ugly for you if the secrets are embarrassing or the confidential information is management-related...

If you do not fan a smouldering ember, it does not become a crackling flame. Avoid office gossip.


Excellent communication skills have been linked to career advancement and could even signal a possibility of being considered leadership material. Jenna Goudreau, a Forbes contributor - drawing upon new year-long study of over 4,000 college-educated professionals and 268 senior executives, conducted by CTI and in partnership with Marie Claire magazine - listed the ten worst communication mistakes for your career. These blunders included: making racially-biased comments; sounding uneducated; rambling; and avoiding eye contact.

Clearly, getting communications right at the workplace is not only important for better operational effectiveness, but also promotes a healthy ambience whereby employees feel treated with respect and are motivated in their jobs - all which lead to higher productivity. This is because, (as I mentioned earlier), communications would impact attitudes and behaviours at the workplace. Moreover, becoming better communicators, irrespective of our varied job descriptions, contributes to the overall organisational effectiveness, which benefits both management and employees.

It is true that the corporate communications unit is often responsible for creating varied contents and for disseminating information to relevant stakeholders. However, we should realise that as professionals in an increasingly globalised existence, (we are 'citizens of the world'), being able to  effectively communicate at the workplace and in the wider environment, translates to a competitive advantage and quicker results.

And we should also endeavor to explain, like Denzel Washington, in the movie "Philadelphia"*, our points of view in such a way that conveys an 'aha moment' to a four-year-old child...


*Memorable quotes from the film  "Philadelphia", (1993).

N.B- Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

5 Descriptive Traits Of An Effective Organisational Leader

I had started writing this article a few weeks ago when I 'discovered' the hit show "Undercover Boss USA" on cable television. Actually I had known that it aired every week but had only made a mental note to watch it. One day however, I settled down to watch an episode and immediately became hooked. 

In a nutshell, the programme illustrates how a CEO/COO/President of a thriving company goes undercover as a new employee in the organisation he manages/owns so as to really learn more about the business. In order to explain the presence of a filming crew on the premises, the week-long experience is filmed under the guise of assisting the 'novice in familiarising himself with the operations of the company, with the aim of gaining some entry-level training or similar experience. The 'undercover boss' is treated like a regular employee. The show ends when the 'undercover boss' is unveiled, often to the understandably-astonished staff with whom he had had the most interaction. He then shares valuable insights learned from the experience - about his employees; about the company, (good or bad); and about himself - and outlines the changes he would introduce for better organisational effectiveness. He also rewards employees who displayed exemplary service during his 'undercover' stint.

While episodes differ in terms of the type of companies featured, there is a common denominator: the bosses are passionate about, and emotionally attached to their companies and are genuinely desirous of change. They also come to appreciate the 'human element' in their companies and gain a better understanding of how the employees actually determine the success, (and profitability), of their corporations.

Featured in the first two seasons were the actual CEOs, (or in a few cases top management executives), of companies such as: '1-800 Flowers', 'Great Wolf',  'DirecTV',  'Chiquita',  and many others. I took special note when the well-known sports franchise giant, 'NASCAR', sent its Chief Marketing Officer undercover to conduct, (as the show explained), some "messy hands-on market research" for the company.

Now I realise that the issue of leadership has been discussed for decades and that undoubtedly, there are numerous accounts, books and references detailing characteristics of good leaders. I do not intend to re-invent the wheel. However, the TV programme aided in my musings about the issue of leadership and the traits an effective leader should possess in the organisational context. Below is my list of five non-negotiable traits an organisational leader should (aspire to)  possess. He should be:

1) Passionate about the organisation

This is the number one visible trait of the 'undercover bosses', most of whom were founders of the featured companies or had the responsibility of running the companies passed on to them from preceding generations.  It is really simple : the more passionate a leader is about a cause, the more likely he is to exude confidence and more importantly, the more likely that people, (his employees in particular), would 'get it' and become passionate themselves about his vision. They figure that if the CEO is investing his time, energy and resources into X venture, clearly communicating his vision, 'living and breathing' his cause, then that cause should benefit the organisation and by extension, them as well.  The leader gets the collective 'buy-in' of his staff which spurs on the necessary action. At the very least, he will be exposed to varied viewpoints, even from those who oppose his ideas/methods. Insights learnt therein would be crucial in adjusting or tweaking the proposed plan in order to successfully implement his vision for the company.

By contrast, a newly-appointed CEO who is only interested in figures and operational performance, would not be perceived to really care about the company or its employees and would be unlikely to elicit true commitment for a change that he seeks to implement. Employees may even become suspicious of his plans and may believe that his interests are self-seeking and designed to make him 'look good' to the Board and other stakeholders. They are also likely to resist the change and withhold their support, (leading to a lack of true engagement), all to the detriment of the cause.

This trait is, or should be, closely associated with the following: excellent communication skillshonesty and integrity. These three pillars in turn fuel the passion for the organisation.

2) Flexible


An effective leader should be flexible - flexible in his approach to the operational strategies; flexible in relinquishing 'power'; and flexible in his outlook - in the short, mid and long term. This is particularly difficult if the leader possesses 'superior' knowledge of the business or if he runs a family business which has been in existence for generations and which is renowned by upholding the specific traditions. He simply must learn to delegate for greater effectiveness since he cannot be all things to all men all of the time.

Delegation is tough but it is often necessary. This point is echoed by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, renowned for her rapid career progression, and who at 37, is reportedly number  three on 'Fortunes 40 Under 40' list; number fourteen on the 'Fortune Most Powerful Women' list; and the youngest CEO male or female on the 'Fortune 500' list. She is quoted as stating: "Do things that you're not quite ready to do. And surround yourself with the smartest people".

A leader must be flexible enough to delegate and to make allowances for human errors by his staff for two reasons. Firstly, delegation sparks trust and autonomy, as well as a sense of accountability. Secondly, professionals learn quickly from mistakes they make. These people are more likely to put in greater effort at finding solutions than they would have been if they did not feel 'invested' in the project or cause.

Most important of all is this: flexibility begets innovation and innovation is essential for organisational longevity.

3) Concerned about employees

There is no way around this issue. He must be concerned about the well-being of his employees, their mental states and most especially, what goes on in their personal lives. I am not necessarily advocating a heart-to-heart talk with every employee or a telephone call at random hours to enquire if 'all is well'. Some employees like to keep their work lives separate from their private lives. What is essential is that a listening culture is cultivated whereby employees' concerns are genuinely discussed and practical solutions offered.

At the workplace, stress should be minimised and a healthy work-life balance encouraged as much as possible. The effective leader should think twice before introducing measures which would put (greater) financial strains on the employees. I believe that across the globe, cases of depression, hypertension, heart attacks, suicidal attempts etc. are often sadly triggered by high stress levels at work and the threat of financial ruin. Female employees in particular should take note of stress-triggers which cause health problems. An article for Harvard Women's Health Watch  makes a case for the strong link between work-related stress and heart problems.

Suffice to say that a burnt-out, de-motivated and aggrieved workforce does not translate to productivity. In fact quite the opposite is true. Research in the organisational behavioural science field reveals that aggrieved employees tend to engage in theft, shut-downs and other negative retaliatory behaviours, especially if they perceive that injustices are being committed. And the most visible injustice, I would imagine, would be reductions to their salaries or compensation packages for frivolous reasons, without due consideration to the economy and/or their family responsibilities.

Associated with this trait of being compassionate is having good interpersonal skills. An effective leader should be sensitive to cultural and religious differences and should seek to treat employees with respect and professional courtesy. Just because people work for him in various capacities, does not give him the right to 'lord' it over them and treat them with arrogance, disdain or indifference. An effective leader must realise, just like those depicted in the “Undercover Boss USA” shows, that the talented and dedicated workforce is the heartbeat of the organisation, without whom the company's growth is stalled.

4) Relevant

This is one of the most important descriptive traits to cultivate. In this era of rapid technology, the effective leader must be open to change and new possibilities that would benefit the organisation, even if he is required to step out of his comfort zone. If he is truly passionate about his company, he should seek knowledge and should search for ways his organisation could remain relevant and innovative in accordance with the changing operational environment.

One useful way to do this is to use social media. The leader who has a social media phobia would have to familiarise himself with the various social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and numerous others to stay relevant. He should ensure that competent staff represent the company and effectively manage its online reputation, which is crucial to a healthy corporate image. Such staff must be trained regularly about the companys expectations, and should be advised on what is and is not acceptable online, given that they would be the 'voice' of the company in the digital world.  They should be aware that managing the corporate reputation online is serious business and not a frivolous exercise.

It is now not unusual for some CEOs or top executives to have Twitter accounts and to 'tweet' regularly about their organisations. Celebrities and entertainers also tweet, even about mundane things - such as where they are thinking of having lunch, or an experience they simply must share with their fans -  and enjoy a huge fan base of 'followers' exceeding thousands and (in some cases), millions.

Even politicians have caught the 'social media bug', and in the months preceding the elections, both President Obama of the United States (US), and Republican flag-bearer, Mitt Romney, operated official Twitter accounts. They, (or in some cases, their campaign staff), tweeted about policies and plans in order to gain support for the November 2012 presidential elections1. Both also have functional LinkedIn profiles with impressive CVs and achievements2. Even though the incumbent, President Obama, won his second term bid in the elections, I am of the opinion that both politicians stayed relevant to the citizenry, even to the younger generation. I also watched snippets of Obama's victory speech at the Obama Headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, at about 12.50am (Eastern US time), on November 5th. At such an hour, when they should have been in bed, I was surprised to see young people and children in the audience, listening with rapt attention and (sometimes) in utter astonishment, at the energy exuded by the charismatic leader with his eloquent, inspiring speech.

Moreover, as regards to 'damage control actions', Twitter is a good platform for quickly tackling and correcting misinformation, outright lies or distorting of facts when an organisational  crisis breaks. This is essential because in the wake of a crisis, as is explained in the 'importance of feedback' section in this post, speculation and rumours become rife and wreck havoc on the corporate image when official statements are delayed.  

Relevance and importance of Twitter during a disaster

It is important to note how leaders in general turn to the Twitter platform to consolidate their reach and relevance, especially during a disaster. Effective organisational leaders should take note of this veritable asset. Case in point: 'Hurricane Sandy' which hit the US on October 29th.

For disaster preparedness and management of the effects of the 'super storm', Twitter was a very useful platform for quick breaking news, as well as for discussions and dissemination of crucial information.  

'Hurricane Sandy' caused massive flooding, devastation, deaths and plunged millions of people into darkness. CNN's Twitter account  reported that during that period, over 6.5 million people were without power across 13 states and Washington D.C. Among the twenty million tweets which circulated cyberspace before, during and a few days after the hurricane according to the Huffington Post, it was interesting to note those of the Governors of some of the affected states, such as tweets from Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey3. They personally used Twitter to perpetuate important information in an effort to keep their constituents safe and to instill hope. Moreover, notable news anchor, CNN's Piers Morgan4 tweeted blow-by-blow updates of 'Hurricane Sandy' and its impact in the affected states. Renowned online media authority Arianna Huffington5 also re-tweeted (live) information either reported from the Huffington Post Media or other sources, during the period 29th-30th October. When power outages delayed updates from traditional media, people set Twitter a-buzz with information, (and sometimes misinformation); Instagram pictures, (either taken during the storm or its aftermath); and with somewhat emotional messages of advice and support.

In a nutshell, an effective organisational leader should be relevant and well versed in the social media revolution for better effectiveness. He should also realise that being relevant is also intricately linked to being an effective communicator, especially in this rapidly-evolving world whereby social media should be embraced.

One should note however, that excessive reliance on social media is reportedly counter-productive . There are also important points to consider before hopping on the Twitter wagon  as is explained in this post . Nevertheless, when utilised wisely, social media is essential to the organisation's reputation and wider stakeholder acceptance.

If an aspiring effective organisational leader is still unconvinced about the power of Twitter in making him relevant, then Jeff Bullas' post about the explosive power of the re-tweet  should allay all vestiges of doubt, apathy and indifference to social media , and to Twitter in particular.

5) 'Cool-headed'

This might sound a little bit humorous but keeping a 'cool head' is necessary in times of operational failures, crises or scandals. Screaming at the top of one's voice, looking for scapegoats or making rash decisions, all do not solve problems. In fact, such actions alienate the staff, cause high-stress situations and even strain relationships with allies.

An effective leader should aim to be rational and fair in tough situations. It might be necessary to take some time out to 'clear' his head in order to assess the situation more logically; even when it does seem like the world is falling apart at the seams. Things may or may not be as bad as they seem, but being 'cool-headed' communicates two things: i) hope to the workforce, and ii) confidence in the ability of  the CEO to find appropriate solutions even if company-wide sacrifices would be required.

There are also health benefits for even-tempered leaders such as reduced stress levels, lower risk of hypertension and heart problems and overall, increased 'wellness' of mind and body.


I can appreciate that being a leader is not an easy calling with challenges constantly being faced. Being an effective leader is even more difficult but one must address this point: communications, inherent in all the traits listed above, are thus crucial for successful leadership.

While we are all flawed as human beings and may protest in frustration that no one is perfect, being able to face the truth about one's strengths and limitations and not being too proud to seek advice, is very important to being successful. In some cases, that is half the battle solved.

Perhaps organisational leaders should have an 'undercover boss' mentality and be willing to un-learn their idealistic ideas about how their companies should be run.

Perhaps they should be willing to seek and embrace new perspectives from an unlikely source - their employees, those 'unsung heroes' in the trenches and test methods recommended by the staff. Who knows? They just might become better equipped to lead their companies towards greater effectiveness.

And I strongly recommend the "Undercover Boss shows which have versions for the U.K, Australia and Canada...


1Barack Obamas official Twitter account is handled by his campaign team:  www.twitter.com/barackobama.  His personal tweets are marked "bo".

Mitt Romney's Twitter account: www.twitter.com/mittromney

2Barack Obama's LinkedIn profile:  http://www.linkedin.com/in/barackobama

Mitt Romney's LinkedIn profile:

Governor Corbett's tweets:

Governor Christie's tweets:

4Piers' Morgan's tweets:  

Arianna Huffingon's tweets: 

N.B- Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net. Animations courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and gifgifs.com