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Why You and Your Boss Can’t Communicate

Rules for good work relationships

Good communication is the lifeblood of any workplace, and it is the key to relationships at work. Yet communication often breaks down for very simple reasons that we often aren’t even aware of. Here are some rules that will lead to better workplace communication, and a happier work environment.

Certain unspoken rules, or “norms,” develop in organizations that serve to stifle communication. For example, the norm in one company may be for employees to engage in impression management and always appear competent. As a result, workers don’t feel comfortable asking for help or for information when they are uncertain about what to do.

A lack of trust also leads to communication breakdown on all sides, a boss might not want to disclose important information about plans for fear that employees will spread the word around. Employees, on the other hand, may not discuss their feelings and concerns out of fear that others will exploit them.

The answer to avoid these types of communication breakdowns is to establish policies and norms for open and authentic communication (“Let me be straight with you…”). Over time, a culture of trust, rather than mistrust will develop.

Another reason why communication breaks down is the tendency to under-communicate. Bosses believe that employees already know more than they do, or they believe that there is certain information that employees don’t need to, or don’t want to, know.

My advice to most organizations that I consult with is that when in doubt, err on the side of over-communicating. Remember the old adage, “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you just told them?” Well, it seems to work in getting the point across. Leaders should constantly remind employees about the company’s mission, direction, and plans. It will impress upon everyone the importance of the information and will help develop the culture of openness and trust.

Finally, a punitive sort of work environment, where employees are punished or reprimanded openly when they make a mistake, inhibits communication and makes employees defensive. This defensiveness stifles employee creativity.

The answer is to allow employees to admit mistakes and learn from them. Nothing builds trust and open communication than an appropriate and non-punitive diagnosis of the problems that an employee makes.

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