In the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, a cantankerous prison guard goads Paul Newman’s character with the line, “What we have here, is [a] failure to communicate.” Without comparing managers to prison guards (nor employees to inmates), I’m guessing that “failure to communicate” is today’s No. 1 workplace conundrum. Here are three ideas that could help improve communication on your team.

Jim Seybert

NO MIND-READING

That may seem obvious, but based on observable practices many managers ignore this fact. Good communication is crystal clear. Asking someone to complete a task “as soon as possible” isn’t good communication. There are far too many variables left open for individual interpretation. If you want to hold someone accountable, your instruction must be clear. “I need you to get this back to me by 2:30 this afternoon” leaves no doubt as to what you expect.

BE HONEST AND DIRECT

It’s a rare manager who deliberately lies to his or her employees, but many are less than fully honest with them. In an effort to appear more easy-going, managers tend to soften their language when confronting employees with requests or correction. To a chronically tardy employee, the boss might joke about the worker needing to “change the battery” on the alarm clock. If things get really bad, they might say something like, “I wish you could get to work on time.” Neither approach actually tells the employee what is expected. An honest and direct approach is “Bob, I have observed that you’ve been five minutes late on 10 of the last 15 days. I need you to be here by 8:00.” No room for doubt.

MATCHING STYLES

People absorb information in one of three basic ways. The most effective means of communicating with a visual learner is through the written word: memos, emails, and letters work best. You’ll know which members of your team are visuals by watching their behavior and listening to the way they talk. The employee who sends you an email for the simplest thing and who says something like, “Oh, now I see what you want” is probably a visual learner.

Auditory learners absorb information through their ears; verbal interaction is the best way to communicate with them. Workers who consistently leave voice mails instead of emails are giving subconscious clues that they prefer verbal over written instruction. They’ll also say things like, “I hear what you’re saying.”

The third major learning group is those who need to experience or touch things. These kinesthetic learners identify themselves by stopping by your office to talk instead of calling or emailing. They often draw diagrams and say, “I’m trying to get my arms around the idea.”

Take the time to determine each team member’s learning style and your communication with him or her will be more fruitful. If an instruction is critical, find ways to communicate it using all three styles. Write a memo, read the memo at a staff meeting, and draw diagrams or show examples of what you want done.

One of the manager’s chief responsibilities is to encourage maximum performance from everyone on the team. Most of the time failure to communicate falls squarely on the shoulders of the one doing (or not doing) the communicating.

1) Make a deliberate effort to remove the term ASAP from your vocabulary.

2) Before correcting or instruction, consider how you can say it more clearly.

3) Watch and listen for clues about your employees’ personal learning style.