During times of stress and urgency, employee communications can regress to reveal more primal behavior. E-mails are short and sharp and lack even a greeting; conversations are focused on the “headlines” without burrowing into the supporting details; and company updates are so dense and overwritten that no one actually reads them. Yet this pressurized environment is exactly where effective communication is needed most, because sharper communication skills build stronger business performance.
Many learning professionals today are either driving or supporting initiatives related to changes in business strategy. This makes it important to unlearn the frequently ineffective communication habits we all fall into under stress. When change is taking place, communication needs to be quick, consistent, truthful, frequent, crystal clear and immediate.
Effective communication is a competency increasingly needed in a fast-paced, competitive global economy. In March 2010, the American Management Association (AMA) surveyed more than 2,000 senior managers and found that communication skills — the ability to synthesize and transmit ideas in writing and orally — are expected to be the top employee development priority for the immediate future.
While effective communication is recognized as a core component of leadership, communication isn’t just speaking or writing well. An individual also has to think clearly, understand what factors are most critical and express them persuasively.
The AMA’s 2010 Critical Skills Survey also examined the importance of communication skills for performance reviews and hiring. Communication skills again ranked first among the competencies assessed on a yearly basis, and during the hiring process more organizations make an effort to assess communication abilities than any other competency.
Specifically, when it comes to communication, both learning professionals and the leaders they support need to:
• Have strong presentation skills that can be demonstrated in written and verbal formats through a variety of mediums.
• Formulate recommendations for learning and development in a persuasive way, build a compelling business case, use business language and tie results to important performance metrics.
• Be verbally agile and establish one’s brand and credibility in the context of the overall business strategy, demonstrating alignment with the vision for the business and the plan to execute on its strategic intent.
Success today is dependent on fostering innovation and creativity — that is, the ability to generate lots of new ideas supported by the understanding that some will succeed and most will fail. Consider: A learning professional is asked to implement a development program to encourage people to take more risks. Such a change will require communicating a compelling argument to help all employees understand the business needs related to innovation. Communications, supported by the appropriate behaviors, will explicitly let employees know that it is OK to take risks.
This learning professional will need to build an understanding that risk is valued and that failure is not punished. Ten ideas may be generated, but only two may succeed and yield positive results. The other eight may be discarded, but still will be celebrated as they were built with creativity and sound business judgment. Rejected ideas will no longer be seen as failures.
To move the culture from being risk-averse to one focused on innovation, employees also will need to be supported with tools to enable them to kick old habits. They will need to develop competencies in critical thinking and problem solving, as well as business acumen and financial analysis, so they can better rationalize creative solutions. They will need communication tools to present their new ideas in strong and powerful ways. They will need the ability to collaborate cross-functionally or across the globe in order to marshal their company’s best thinking. And they will need a process for ongoing feedback to analyze successes and failures quickly, flexibly and with agility to understand the essence of good ideas or potential barriers to execution.
Over time, this new approach to communication and innovation will change the culture of the organization. Is it time for your workforce to unlearn bad habits?
Sandi Edwards is senior vice president for AMA Corporate Learning Solutions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.