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Workplace Communication in Stressful Times

Stress reactions during a crisis may lead to personal prejudices and cultural stereotypes. They may also exacerbate frictions in the workplace that would otherwise just be smoothed over and forgotten. It is more important than ever to listen carefully to others and to monitor our own speech. The workplace is a public space, and all communication there should reflect consideration of the needs of others. Two sets of skills can help keep workplace communication free of unnecessary tension: thoughtful speech and good listening.

Speaking Skills

When people are feeling the negative effects of stress, their ability to listen and process information accurately may be affected. This makes it especially important to communicate clearly in crisis situations. Choose words carefully and try not to become impatient if it seems that you have to repeat the message more often than usual. Remember that your cognitive abilities, as well as those of your listener, may be slightly impaired by the long-term effects of a crisis situation.

Choose your words

Try to avoid emotionally charged language, especially when discussing politics and world events. Words like “they” and “them” can imply that you are generalizing about all members of a particular group. Negative descriptive terms or generalizations about ethnic or religious groups have no place in the workplace at any time. In times of stress, stereotyping – whether positive or negative – can lead to an emotionally-charged discussion and to misunderstandings. Political debates can be exciting, but when feelings are raw, minor differences in viewpoint can be blown out of proportion. Sometimes, it’s best to say nothing at all.

Keep the message clear

When communicating about work issues, think about what you want to say and say it in the simplest way possible. Make instructions clear and, if possible, present them verbally and in writing, especially if the task is complex. Because memory is affected by long-term stress, it helps people to have a written guide to refer to. Allow more time than usual for questions and be prepared to repeat the same information more than once. Because people process information differently, try to say the same thing several different ways. Use examples or comparisons to other situations to make your point.

Ask for clarification

This is a simple communication technique that avoids many misunderstandings. Managers should use it with staff and should also encourage staff to use it. Asking for clarification is the process of summarizing what a speaker has said and then asking if you have understood them correctly. You may have to summarize and ask for clarification more than once. This technique is especially important when giving or receiving instructions. Managers should ask individuals to summarize instructions they have been given to be sure that the listener has understood the message. Listeners should use this technique to avoid going off and doing the wrong thing.

Listening Skills

How we listen to others has always been important, but now it is more important than ever. Many people will feel the need to discuss the events of September 11, the war in Afghanistan and other acts of terrorism in the world for some time. These discussions are likely to remain emotionally charged for both speaker and listener. For this reason, this is a good time to practice listening more than speaking. It can be helpful to yourself as well as others to stop to think before you speak. Remember that many people are simply venting and if you can avoid overreacting to what they say, not only can you keep your own negative stress to a minimum but you may also be able to help the speaker.

Reflecting Content

A simple technique called reflecting content can be very useful when you are engaged in crisis-related discussions. This technique allows you, the listener, time to think about how you wish to respond while making the speaker feel that their message has been heard and acknowledged. Sometimes, the speaker just wants to feel heard, so reflecting content is the best thing you can do. Sometimes, you don’t agree with what you have heard but would prefer to avoid a debate, so reflecting content allows you to acknowledge a statement without actually agreeing. At the same time, you can decide if you are willing and able to continue to listen or need to move to a neutral topic. To reflect content, all you need to do is repeat the last thing the other person has said. Keep your tone neutral and try to use the speaker’s exact words. You may want to do this several times. This creates a supported environment for the other person to express whatever they need to say but does not necessarily imply agreement with the point of view expressed.

Reflecting Feelings

Ask others how they are feeling and really listen to the answer – don’t just make each conversation into an opportunity to discuss your own feelings. You may want to use a technique called reflecting feelings if you feel that someone is upset but he or she is not expressing the feeling. In this case, you can say. “It sounds as if you’re feeling (name emotion) right now. Don’t label the emotion for the speaker – as in, “Boy, are you angry!” By sticking to reflecting what you think you are hearing, you allow the speaker to either own the feeling and talk about it if they want to or to deny the feeling and move away from it. This allows you to support the speaker in the way they would like to be supported. He or she can open up to you or can button down their feelings.

Find a listener

One of the hardest issues to deal with as we deal with crises is that the caregivers will be feeling the effects of their work. It is especially important for anyone who has spent time reaching out and helping others in need to be cared for in return. Don’t shy away from asking others to listen to you when you need to be heard. One of the hardest aspects of a tragedy is that it affects so many people. Some who were not as directly affected by recent events may not feel that they have the same right to support as others who lost friends and family, but everyone is feeling some degree of loss, and these feelings must be acknowledged.

Get help

Remember to care for yourself. Keep in close touch with your support network and make sure that you take some time to express your feelings and concerns to a sympathetic listener. If you are unable or unwilling to do this face to face, call a telephone support line or use one of the many online chat rooms. You may want to start a journal as a way of expressing your feelings. Often, people can express feelings or concerns in writing that they are unwilling to raise in conversation. Writing in a journal allows them to feel heard in a protected environment.

Maintain confidentiality

All communication in difficult situations is confidential. Make sure, whether you are the speaker or the listener, that you have established confidentiality for sensitive conversations. Sometimes, unless confidentiality is established, the listener does not know that information is not to be shared. As a speaker, try to remember to establish what can and can not be shared. As a listener, try to remember that most communication is confidential unless it is explicitly marked as public.

Workplace Communication – A Strategic Perspective

In my earlier article titled “Workplace Communication – A Practitioner’s View”, I had suggested deployment of a strategy as part of a comprehensive approach to employee communication.

Just to re-emphasize, I had suggested that the Workplace-Communication is a self-perpetuating process that aids the organization in achieving its goals by;

Interlinking various levels of hierarchy and functions;
Acknowledging employees about the organization’s vision, values and goals for enlisting their commitment;
Helping employees identify themselves with the organization’s vision and enabling them for prioritizing their actions; and
Helping the organization generate openness & mutual trust and develop congruence between organizational & individual, goals & efforts.

Here, I will now elaborate on the substance of a strategy for Workplace-Communication. Before we begin, let us hold a common meaning of strategy as “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term objective”.

Workplace-Communication is somewhat akin to “internal advertising” with clarity on “Above The Line” and “Below The Line” approaches. The underlying purpose of the Workplace-Communication strategy is to keep employees adequately informed all the time regarding the current status of business, future prospects, issues concerning their jobs & careers, market conditions, etc., essential to achieve a greater congruence between organizational & individual, goals & efforts.

So what are the core elements of a sound Workplace-Communication strategy?

Development of the strategy

There is no point in presuming what employees would like to know or should know. It is a common sense as well as a daunting task. While developing a Workplace-Communication strategy, the organization should consider aspects like employee demographics, average education profile, average age profile, cultural diversity, language proficiency, etc. It would be worthwhile to do a dipstick on “what, when & how” employees would like to know about the business of the organization as well as about their jobs & careers. While every employee need not receive all the information, he / she should certainly get what is relevant to him or her at the right time.

Classification of information or data

Having identified “what, when & how” employees would like to know, each piece should be classified in terms of criticality and target audience. Classification should also include who should know what, when, how and from whom. The moot point is that the employees have the first right to information about the organization, and if they come to know about their organization from the external agencies, then the organization stands to lose credibility. This component has a stand alone weight also when the organization does not have a strategy for workplace communication.

Periodicity of communication

Too frequent or too infrequent communication – both are ineffective. Therefore, each piece of information should have a specified relay periodicity. The analogy is with the daily morning newspaper which has to come every morning and a fortnightly tabloid which has to come every fifteen days. Of course, in case of emergencies or special situations, information ought to be relayed immediately. There is no point if the invitee receives the marriage invitation after the couple is back from the honeymoon.

The language of communication

It is vital to convey information in the language which employees comprehend. It cannot be Shakespearean English when you are a Russian company. Relaying information concurrently in English as well as in the vernacular and / or the national language (if English is not the national language) is the most preferred way. It is also helpful to use visuals and videos depending on the topic. When communicated in the vernacular language, it is important to have a transliteration and not translation. The core aim of this component is to reach out to maximum possible employees.

Channels of communication

This is a challenging component of the workplace-communication strategy. It is entirely up to the organization to innovate on this front. The strategy by design should focus only on formal channels as informal channels have different purposes & implications. So what are the options?

Induction program / tour / film and intense (yes, I mean intense) interaction with the senior guys around

Well crafted induction & socialization booklet with visuals and emphasis on values and ethics

Bilingual monthly or quarterly magazine / newsletter (print as well as electronic version) with designer looks

Mass SMS (can be a powerful tool for conveying exciting news)

Updated “Employee Section” on the company’s website (accessible to employees only though their PCs, Laptops, Tablets and Smartphones)

Team or Department review meetings on a monthly basis (each such meeting must start with a brief on the overall business status and then only the departmental agenda should be discussed)

Circulars or Emails (for example, sharing quarterly / annual business results with all the employees one go) from the CEO or a designated senior and displaying a copy or transliterated version at all the conspicuous places

Display of the organization’s vision, mission & values in the most conspicuous places with suitable designs. Such display should catch attention immediately.

Conventional as well as digital boards / panels depending on the time of information

Computer screens / permanent standies

Training events (very intense tool to communicate with employees)

Official blogs / chat platforms

Annual or half-yearly get-together

Official letters given to employees (offer letter, appointment letter, confirmation letter, compensation revision letter, promotion letter, transfer letter, recognition letter, termination letter, etc.)

Feedback process

Do employees get to know about the organization what they need to know? Do they find the content relevant? Are they able to relate their own performance & experiences with that of the organization (barring the impact of external factors)? Are they receiving information as per the promised periodicity? Do they find the language lucid and the media apt? No communication can be effective if it is not two-way and understood properly. Therefore, it is pragmatic to have a periodic check on the effectiveness of the content, channel, periodicity, language, etc.

Core Group

A group of employees should be entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the effective implementation of the communication strategy. The group should include the HR Head, at least one designated business head, Head of Corporate Communication, Head of PR and at least two employee representatives. It would be prudent to have a good balance of male & female members and seniors & juniors. Young guys have ideas & energy and veterans have the wisdom. Like the classification of information or data, this component too has a stand alone weight.


Over-communicating is better than under-communicating. Information in the organizational context is an essential food for thought, idea-generation, discussion, decision and action. So having a well-defined Workplace-Communication strategy and ensuring its effective implementation, is surely vital for the organization’s business & success. Communication could be spicy at times, but its real hallmarks are timeliness, adequacy, realism, language and the reach. Someone has aptly said that, “the skill in the art of communication is crucial to a leader’s success. He / she can accomplish nothing unless he / she can communicate effectively”.

Workplace Communication

Communication is a two-way process. Communication is successful only when the receiver understands the message intended by the sender.

Effective workplace communication is very essential for smooth and efficient functioning of an organization. The manager should have proper communication with his subordinates, else it will lead to absenteeism amongst workers, lower productivity, development of grapevine networks in an organization. There should be two-way communication in an organization. Manager should have personal contact with his subordinates. He should clearly communicate goals and policies of the organization to his subordinates and should get feedback on these goals and policies.

Feedback plays a very important role in the communication process. It enables us to evaluate the effectiveness of our message. Giving the subordinates chance to provide feedback is important for maintaining a open communication climate. The manager must create an environment that encourages feedback. For example: after communicating a job assignment, he should ask “Do all of you understand?”, “Is that clear?”, “Do you have any doubts?”, etc. This will ensure that whether his message is understood or not.

Both upward and downward communications are important. Upward communication will keep manager informed about employees job satisfaction, employees feelings for their peers and about organization in general. Downward communication is important so that manager can give job instructions, explain the roles and policies and explain the issues which need immediate attention. Similarly we have horizontal communication in an organization which is also very important. It is essential that people working at same level should have effective communication amongst them so that there is co-ordination between them. Communication at workplace should be clear, concise and specific. There should be effective use of body language at workplace. Body language reflects the position of a person in the organization. A manager should make effective use of his body language while communicating with his subordinates.