Communication

Previous: Project Status & Cycles

Communication ensures a few things:

  1. Team members are acting in alignment with the organization’s goals.
  2. Each person is aware of what they’re responsible to do.
  3. Each person is informed about others’ progress, which allows them to know when they must act.
  4. Everyone gets feedback over whether they’re failing or doing well.

Managers absolutely must polish every speaking and writing skill they have.

  • Trouble with communication skills may create light friction among peers, but can make an awful manager.
  • With enough poor communication, even the most effective teams can become dysfunctional.

For any manager, communication is your first priority.

  • Even if it’s simply an affirmation of receiving the information, clearly and promptly reply to every communication you receive.
  • It may be your impulse to do something, but everyone acts in direct response to you.
  • You’re responsible to either delegate a task, or to clearly inform what you intend to do before doing it.

Unless it’s a legitimate emergency, never make it a first principle to tell people what to do.

  • When told to do something, people tend to immediately react negatively or ask why, even if they perform the task.
  • Instead, explain what needs to be done and the consequences if it isn’t done, both to them and the organization.
  • If they still refuse to do it, even then, you’ve made a bad hiring decision and should own the mistake.

Make double-sure you’re not misunderstood.

  • Like with teaching, management requires over-communication, which means lots of repeating and rephrasing.
  • When in-person, point at each thing as you talk about it.
  • Give very specific goals, with clear indicators:
    • How you’ll measure performance
    • When you’ll follow up with them
    • How it benefits them or the group
  • If you have any doubt they heard you, have them repeat what they’re supposed to do.
    • People are often easily distracted and can misunderstand part of a command.
    • While repetition may feel annoying, it’s the only way to ensure everyone understands.

Keep track of what you told them previously.

  • Many bad management issues come from a worker trying to perform according to conflicting instructions.
  • If you had given any previous commands, override them with the current ones.
  • Watch carefully for any uncertainty in their body language, and invite them to openly share their thoughts.

Stay on top of any conflicts that would disrupt the harmony of the group.

  • If anyone decides to publicly disagree with a decision, have a meeting individually with them separately.
    • Often, their complaints are valid, even when their solutions aren’t.
    • If you’re willing to listen, you may be able to accommodate or assist with their problem.
    • Focus on the problem, not on them or their behavior.
  • To avoid inter-group conflicts, try to keep the workers who get along with others together, and assign the disagreeable ones to non-social roles away from everyone else.
  • Every time there’s a new conflict, separate the workers from each other for at least a few weeks.
  • Every time someone leaves, redefine the roles based on what needs to be done and any new conflict-free dynamics.

Approaches

When possible, expand the communication channels.

  • Smaller channels (e.g., texting, email) increase the likelihood of miscommunication over larger channels (e.g., in-person).

Try to make all relevant information immediately available to everyone else.

Meetings and emails are the largest waste of resources in most organizations:

  • Meetings cost the paid time of everyone at the meeting (e.g., 10 people paid at $20/hour cost $200 for a 1-hour meeting).
  • Emails are a deluge of information, and they’re low-context enough to be easily misunderstood.
  • To that end, cut down on both as much as possible.
    • Every back-and-forth dialogue should be in-person or a phone call.
    • If any information doesn’t need to be in a meeting, send it as an email status update or add it to the knowledge base.

Emails

The general rules for writing emails apply, but are magnified from the scope of how much managers have to send them.

  • Typically, a 45-second phone call or voicemail message is much more effective at delivering any urgent information.
  • Email is not secure, so never send critical or sensitive information with it.
    • If you must send important information over the internet, reference a different system that’s more secure (e.g., cloud storage).

To make it easier for everyone, have all the emails searchable by all the members in a centralized database.

Chat Forums

Always stay conscious of any important information in chats.

  • Most of the dialogue in chats is relatively useless, so use a different communication channel to magnify any important matters.

Respect the members’ privacy.

  • Most chat forums devolve into personal discussions, similar to real-life conversation.

Don’t expect people to read chats unless it’s directed at them.

  • If you want to say something important to them, make a quick phone call or hold a quick meeting.

One-on-One

If you want to improve performance, consistently meet with each member one-on-one.

  • Focus exclusively on them during the meeting.
  • Notify them ahead of time, and ask for them to bring anything they want to discuss.
  • If there was anything previously discussed, acknowledge each improvement.
  • Avoid talking about specific tasks and focus on their overall growth and sense of wellness.
  • Give opportunities for them to face their fears on their own.
  • Take notes for any followup actions or agreed-upon commitments.

When directly communicating with anyone, stay aware of your position.

  • You will always have more authority than them because your opinion determines if they’re fired.

To help everyone feel at-ease, always set at least some time in your daily schedule for anyone to approach you about anything.

  • You may need alone time as well, so make it explicitly clear when others are free to contact you.

Avoid saying anything vague in advance that may scare them.

  • Saying “can we talk when you get a chance?” will terrify anyone, since they have no idea why.
  • If you can’t speak publicly about it, use a clarifying term when it’s not significant:
    • Just wanted to run a few ideas by you.
    • Nothing major, just wanted to ask a few questions.
    • Need some clarification on [subject] when you can.
    • Had to update you on something we were talking about earlier.

If you’re managing managers, meet with the leadership once a week to answer a few questions:

  • How is progress toward quarterly objectives?
  • Are the metrics showing anything noteworthy?
  • What is the financial position of the organization?
  • How the market or environment is responding to the organization’s actions?
  • Are there any significant necessary changes?
  • Are there any other short-term obstacles or concerns?

When reviewing their performance, use the Rule of Five for each member:

  • Discuss 2 current tasks.
  • Discuss 2 future tasks.
  • Bring up 1 crucial task that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Every year, examine everyone’s yearly progress across the prior 4 quarters.

  • Review past performance and connect quarterly progress with yearly goals.
  • Reflect on the year’s successes and failures.
  • Identify the coming year’s most important priorities and define next year’s goals.
  • To make the occasion memorable, send everyone off-site to a vacation destination.

Avoid comparing their performance with anyone else.

  • Without you saying anything, people typically compare themselves more than enough already.
  • Unless you’re giving direct incentives (e.g., sales numbers), comparisons between others isn’t very constructive.
    • It can also be harmful through sowing distrust and insecurity through competition.
  • Only compare someone’s current performance with their past performance.

Knowledge Base

If you have lots of necessary information that’s relatively static, build a centralized source for that information:

  • Wiki software
  • Web forum
  • Service ticket management system

When you have a knowledge base, systematically review the information.

  • It’s not uncommon for information to become outdated, which will either cause major miscommunication later if you don’t terminate the knowledge base.

Meetings

1 – Define the purpose of the meeting.

  • There are 2 types of meetings:
  • Typically, status update meetings are not worth the effort.
    • In theory, it brings everyone together to discuss the latest news, but in practice it involves most of the members hearing about information that has nothing to do with them.
    • On an hourly pay rate, it can also be tremendously expensive to have 10 people idling for an hour.
    • However, if everyone is working remotely, it can be useful for everyone to meet, but only if everyone is encouraged to speak up.
    • If you want status updates, meet with a few people each day for 5-10 minutes at a time.
  • Everyone should know the purpose of the meeting before attending it.

2 – Determine who needs to attend and why.

  • Not everyone should be at each meeting.
    • Only have people at the meeting whose individual decisions will be affected by the meeting.
  • Confirm who is going or not going to the meeting.
    • Have a backup plan for non-attenders.

3 – Structure the meeting correctly.

  • For a status meeting, save as much time as possible.
  • For brainstorming meetings, generate as many ideas as possible to increase the likelihood of a good solution.
  • If you must perform a status meeting for posterity (e.g., middle management), use Robert’s Rules of Order to keep the meeting on track and capture all communications.
  • Have a plan in mind for how you’ll keep everyone focused if any component of the meeting goes too long.
    • Never let a brainstorming meeting devolve into status updates.

4 – Set the time and place for the meeting.

  • Every meeting should focus on the members’ questions and concerns.
  • There’s no ideal time that fits everyone’s preference:
    • People with late-night lifestyles (especially when they’re young) won’t do well in morning meetings.
    • Give lunch at afternoon meetings, or set them after lunchtime.
    • Everyone is tired and wants to leave in the evening.
    • To accommodate latecomers, set the time at an odd time (e.g., 5 minutes after the hour).
  • Schedule brainstorming meetings at the beginning of the day for everyone to be alert and attentive.
  • Use the venue to direct the mood:
    • To avoid needless distraction, use a standing meeting.
    • Give snacks or food to give energy and generate ideas.
    • Meeting rooms are often boring, but there are no distractions.
    • Meeting at a restaurant or public space can allow a more relaxed environment (especially if it’s a mandatory meeting).
  • Schedule enough time for the meeting, but not too much:
    • Whether you make meetings 15-20 minutes or 2 hours, always keep the discussion on-topic.
    • If it’s a status meeting, it doesn’t need to be more than 15 minutes.
    • Give extra time for explanations and anticipated discussions.
    • While your specific team’s needs will vary, make every meeting as short as possible.

5 – Send an agenda to everyone before the meeting starts.

  • Without a presentation, most meetings with a shared vision can be over in as little as 20-30 minutes.
  • Only specify up to 3 agenda items.
    • Specify ground rules for the meeting about permissible discussion topics.
  • Status update meetings:
    • At least 24 hours beforehand, send an email out with all the new updates, with the expectation that everyone read it beforehand.
      • Post the agenda and documents on the knowledge base.
    • Email to request a status update from members with the deadline of at least a few hours before the meeting itself.
    • For dense informational meetings, a 6-page typed evidence-based narrative guides the lecture.
  • Clarify beforehand who is responsible for the meeting.
    • One person is responsible to direct the meeting, which does not have to be the manager.
    • One of the other members who understands the meeting’s purpose is responsible to take notes.

6 – Keep the meeting on-track.

  • Keep to the meeting’s schedule.
    • Always start on time, and do not stop the meeting to explain to anyone who arrives late.
    • Only discuss topics on the agenda, and make a list of followup discussions for any diverging topics.
    • If anyone tries to commandeer the meeting, vulnerably explain the importance of discussing it at a different time.
  • Quick status update meetings:
    1. Start the meeting by opening up for everyone’s questions.
    2. Stay closely on-topic and direct all previously articulated questions to the reading material.
    3. Conclude the meeting, with the indication that anyone can ask you directly about anything they don’t understand or want to discuss.
  • Long status update meetings:
    1. 2 min – praise specific people for exceptional work.
    2. 3 min – share meaningful metrics about the team’s progress.
    3. 20-40 min – each team or member takes turns summarizing how their department has performed.
    4. 5 min – communicate upcoming strategies and why the group’s actions matter.
    5. Give each team or member a task list for the upcoming period.
  • Brainstorming meetings:
    1. If the culture permits, offer 1-2 drinks 15 minutes before the meeting.
    2. Tell them at the beginning you want as many ideas as possible, and for everyone to silently submit them without judgment.
    3. Read off all the ideas, then give them a second round for them to think of more ideas.
    4. After all the ideas have been given, group them based on common themes.
    5. Hold a meeting later in the day with everyone and ask for more ideas if you want.
    6. If there are any risks, openly discuss them.
    7. Have everyone vote by ranking the options or writing a 1-10 scale for each idea.
  • For brainstorming meetings with much more back-and-forth dialogue, use the Stepladder Technique:
    1. Ask all the members to think of a good solution to the task or problem long enough beforehand for them to establish an opinion about it.
    2. Create a core group of 2 members to discuss the problem.
    3. Add an additional member, who discusses their ideas before hearing the other members’ thoughts.
    4. Everyone discusses their ideas openly.
    5. Repeat steps 3-4 for all remaining members.
    6. Reach a final decision after everyone has presented their ideas.

7 – After every meeting, clearly specify everything in writing and plan for the future.

  • You can’t prove it happened if it’s not recorded.
    • Written clarification holds people accountable and protects everyone.
  • Clarify what each person is individually responsible to do.
    • Specify deadline dates, times, or expectations for tasks.
  • Distribute all the notes to everyone.
  • Track any promises made during the meeting.
  • If future meetings are unnecessary, take them off the calendar or change their format.

Delegating

Keep giving tasks to everyone around you.

  • As a group grows larger, you’ll need to delegate more to keep up with tasks only you can do.
  • Most lower-tier managers have a tendency to keep working at mundane tasks until they’re overworked.
  • If you have trouble delegating, think of all the tasks you’re not able to do from what you’re currently working on.

People find meaning in responsibility, so delegating tasks correctly grants tremendous meaning.

  • Delegating to workers is the natural means to allow both you and the worker to succeed:
  • In general, delegation builds a culture of trust and respect.
    • One advantage of delegation is that you can quickly see abuses of power by the wrong workers, but without having to change their official roles back-and-forth.
  • Clearly communicate how your delegation adds value to them or the organization (and not just yourself).

Many of your important decisions are simply who you delegate tasks to.

  • Give essential tasks to people who care the most about the work.
  • Members may resent you if you do it the wrong way.
    • Make it worth their effort with more incentives (e.g., more pay, more privileges).
  • Try to give responsibilities proportionally to their proven background:
    • Some of the younger workers will be elated to take some of your responsibilities.
    • Older workers will often be competent to take on tasks, but will typically expect a pay increase for the role change (which is typically worth it).
  • Try to give tasks to people smarter than you.
    • Even if they’re not as hard-working, they’ll often find creative ways to do the tasks easier than you (e.g., with technology).
    • Smart and lazy people will generally find ways to optimize the work so they don’t have to do it.
  • If anyone performs the task better than you, promptly advertise how well they’ve done.
    • To instill a culture of clever ideas, the members must know their opinions can make a difference beyond themselves.
    • Never claim credit for an idea from one of your subordinates, even if it’s the organization’s intellectual property.

Never delegate things nobody else can do.

  • If only you can do something (e.g., payroll, ordering inventory), make sure to prioritize those tasks over things other people can do.
    • Often, when you’ve been promoted, force of habit will provoke you to perform tasks that were part of your primary role.
  • Beyond specific authorities, your personality is designed to excel at certain tasks over others.
  • Typically, your reputation and creativity are irreplaceable, but someone else can do your time-consuming tasks.

The more you give tasks, the more they develop their skills in that direction.

  • They should have plenty of chances to attempt work, and plenty of room for failure.
    • They won’t be able to do it as well as you, but they also probably haven’t spent as much time becoming efficient at those tasks as you have.
  • At some point, if you keep delegating, you’ll have a successor who can take on your role.
    • Eventually, you’ll get tired of the work or won’t be able to do it anymore, and training someone else into the role leaves a legacy for yourself.
  • If the problem is difficult, but not urgent, give it to a member to solve it.
    • Frequently, their perspective will mean they may be more familiar with portions of the situation than you.

You can often delegate portions of your management-only work.

  • Someone else may not be able to have someone else process payroll, but they can still do data entry for time sheets.
  • Someone else may not be able to order inventory, but they can still count what needs reordering.
  • While they may not be allowed to check other members’ work, they can still relocate it for your convenience.

Empower workers to train each other.

  • Make “subject matter experts” to share their understanding with the rest of the group.
  • When someone is formally defined as a subject matter expert in a semi-related field that’s not part of their formal role, their expertise can often add tremendous value to the team.

However, keep growing on your own, or you’ll start getting soft.

  • If the organization ever starts having to downsize (or you take on another role somewhere else), you’ll need those skills again.

If you’ve delegated enough tasks to a worker, promote them.

  • A small pay boost and title change is a huge boost to their morale, and typically fosters loyalty as well.
  • It’s also the best way to promote without the other workers getting jealous.

Feedback

People naturally sense when they’re valued or disposable.

  • Younger workers often need a role model, along with opportunities to grow and advance.
  • Older workers demand respect for their skills, more job security, and benefits that can help them retire.

Give consistent advice and constant recognition.

  • People need feedback to feel valued and anchored to the organization.
  • Your feedback should be a consistent, habitual pattern.
  • Generally, you should be praising publicly and criticizing privately.

The uneven nature of management means you’ll get feedback much less than give it.

  • The social structure of the organization also typically means most of your peers will naturally be other managers.
  • This is an enormous blind spot that can easily sabotage any healthy change you may need to do.

Whenever you can, find ways to receive anonymous feedback.

  • Openly encourage everyone to bring any problems to your attention, but expect everyone to be distrustful of sharing.
  • Give an anonymous suggestion box (or digital version) for members to give their ideas.
  • If you’re determined to have more accountability, give a small pay bonus or incentive for anything members find wrong with management, or for any solutions they discover.
  • In particular, the lowest-ranking and lowest-paid roles (e.g., sales, customer service) have the most perspective and experience to give particularly brilliant ideas.

Unless the workers can directly see their results, you must inform them when they’re succeeding or failing.

  • At the most extreme, you could only give negative feedback, which is how most militaries work.
    • The “no news is good news” is easy to maintain, but can quickly create a harsh and unforgiving work environment.
  • On the other end, you may be overworked from all the affirmations you have to constantly deliver.
    • If you give steady affirmations, you must maintain it or communicate any changes, or everyone will overthink why you stopped and may become discouraged.
  • The best solution is to find happiness in yourself enough to be grateful for others, then express legitimate and impulsive gratitude over what others do.

Deliver praise correctly:

  1. Find something specific that you genuinely appreciate.
    • People naturally know when others patronize them.
    • Do not use a formal recognition program, since they can quickly become inauthentic.
    • Focus on the effort they put into the accomplishment, not the accomplishment itself.
    • Never mix constructive feedback with praise, since it sabotages the message.
      • If you must criticize, save it for at least the next day.
  2. Praise them immediately, not later on.
    • Preferably, your observation should surprise them because you noticed when they didn’t realize.
  3. Set aside at least 5-10 minutes to praise them.
  4. Tell them right away you’re letting them know how they’re doing.
  5. Tell them what they did right, and be as specific as possible.
  6. Explain how good you feel about what they did right, as well as how it helps both the organization and others who work there.
  7. Stop for a moment of silence to let the affirmation sink in.
  8. Encourage them to do more of the same.
  9. Shake hands confidently to show them you support their continued success.

Deliver criticism correctly:

  1. Only bring up actionable items.
    • Some skills can be trained, but others can’t.
      • e.g., you can train someone to operate a cash register, but you can’t train them to be pleasant to customers.
    • Unless you want input from them on a solution, only correct them on things they can change.
    • If their behavior is stifling their growth or potential, your direct feedback may potentially save their career.
  2. Correct them immediately, before they can fail again.
  3. Set aside at least 5-10 minutes to deliver your correction.
  4. Warn them immediately, and in no uncertain terms, that you’re about to let them know how they are doing.
  5. Make the first half of the reprimand a clear warning.
    • Tell them what they did wrong, as specifically as possible.
    • Tell them how you feel about what they did wrong where they can’t misunderstand how you feel.
      • If there’s any anger, only direct it toward the problem and never toward people.
  6. Stop for a few seconds of silence to let the discomfort sink in.
  7. The second half of your reprimand should encourage them to do better.
    • Reaffirm you think well of them even though you didn’t approve of their performance in that specific situation.
  8. Shake hands with them that shows you’re honestly on their side.
  9. If they improve, never bring it up again to anyone.

When applicable, give them free access to grow and develop their skills.

  • Finance their growth by paying for books, courses, and conferences.
  • Even secondary or unrelated training (e.g., improving productivity or parenting) can instill confidence that you care about them as people more than simply the tasks they perform.

Avoid routine performance reviews if at all possible.

  • Everything in a formal performance review should have been covered in a previous interaction with them as the situation presented itself.
  • Standardized performance reviews do not incentivize better work, but can easily discourage people.
  • If you do need performance reviews (such as in a middle management situation), only cover followup information you had previously talked about.

Procedures

Procedures are the “automation” of an organization.

  • They allow new hires to quickly adapt to their work.
  • The written procedure has the power to redefine the entire organization’s culture.
  • While the new hires will likely not read the handbook (especially if it’s a low-thought job), they’ll imitate the more experienced and loyal workers who should be reading it.

You won’t typically need formalized procedures when the organization is small, but tasks will eventually require standardized methods.

  • Once the organization starts scaling, it’ll be an absolutely critical communication need for everyone to know how to do something or how something was done.
  • Any efforts you make on building procedures as soon as you see any growth will save you the urgency of creating it later.
  • More time thinking on correct policy and procedure allows you to more clearly understand the best way to frame the language in the documentation.

Making procedures themselves is an ongoing process:

  1. Divide out individual activities each worker does into discrete, clear tasks.
  2. Sequentially for each task, explicitly clarify its exact requirements in writing.
    • You don’t understand it unless you can tell a completely inexperienced teenager exactly how to do it.
    • Sometimes, the tasks are different when different roles do them, so clarify those as well.
  3. Abstract away all the idiosyncratic details.
    • If the task requires precise actions, make it a rule.
    • If it’s not critical to perform precisely correctly, make it a guideline (or “best practices”).
  4. Ask your best workers what they think.
    • Pull them from their work on a slow period.
    • Request for them to show how it’s wrong, or if you missed anything.
  5. Edit for simplicity.
    • Jargon can be useful for specificity, but it slows down the reading and can make the content difficult enough that nobody will read it.
  6. Once you have a final draft, publish it with a date attached to it.
  7. On a regular basis (e.g., monthly, yearly), plan a regular review of the entire document.
    • Preferably, have your best workers review the document.
    • Make sure the workers are actually doing the procedures.
    • Make sure the procedures in writing are still applicable and sane.
  8. Make a new edit for any obsolete or insane instructions.
  9. Publicly communicate any divergences from previously stated practices.
    • Before beginning the meeting or message, clarify you will not discipline any past-tense violations of the standard.
    • Often, the instructions were either written poorly enough that the workers didn’t understand it or difficult to read.
    • End the meeting on good news by telling them what you removed from the instructions as well.
  10. Expect conflicts and possible re-edits.
  11. Draw extra attention for at least the next few months to divergences from the reviewed tasks from that meeting.
    • Typically, small changes can ripple outward to directly inspiring other changes and creating large-scale effects.

Work-From-Home

If the situation permits, consider remote teams.

  • Telecommuting typically cuts costs and expands your potential members to the part of the world with available internet.

The downside, however, is that the work can’t be on-site.

  • On-site work means people informally communicate with each other.
    • Connect more often with them to compensate for the lesser communication.
    • In large teams, you’ll usually need a daily or semi-daily status update meeting.
  • When possible, make fun in-person events that honor special events like birthdays, anniversaries, and promotions.
    • Real-life interaction builds human connection that can’t be replaced long-distance.
  • However, you can use a hybrid on-site/off-site team if you can heavily divide the work roles.

Always do on-site inspections of performed.

  • Photos and videos can be poorly captured or miss key details, and can’t provide sufficient quality control.
  • If you can’t perform on-site inspection yourself, hold someone responsible to verify the work.

It’s impossible to derive a gut instinct from a video chat.

  • Drive performance strictly on data.

The work site is technically their home, so respect their privacy.

  • They will typically mix their personal and work life, so don’t expect them to have conventional hours unless the job specifically demands it.
  • There are very few reasons why you need them to keep their camera or microphone constantly on.
  • Only track metrics directly related to results.

Next: Maintaining Morale