Many years ago, not long after I took my first director-level position, I had an eye-opening experience with a member of my new team. We’d been kicking around ideas in a brainstorming session and the next thing I knew he was off and running with one of the ideas. When I asked him later why he was working on it, he said, “You mentioned ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we did this?’ so I’m doing it!”
Lesson learned. Now that I was in a senior position, people heard me differently. I wasn’t just a member of the team; I had authority. Did that mean all of my suggestions would be taken as directives? That was certainly not what I expected. From this example, though, I knew I needed to start communicating more clearly and carefully to avoid unintended consequences.
Since then, I’ve zeroed in on the three most important things I can do to communicate successfully in the workplace. They’re rules I live by as a leader but they can be applied to just about any situation, whether you’re talking with your boss, co-workers, friends or family.
1. Let the situation dictate your communication style. I’m naturally casual and informal when I’m in the company of people who know me. But in professional situations, I deliberately adapt my communication style to be appropriate for the occasion, which is something that’s become increasingly important as my career has progressed. Now, as a member of our executive leadership team, I’m even more aware of my communication style since I’m occasionally called on to represent my company to the public.
2. Deliver the right amount of context for your audience. Have you ever attended a meeting or presentation and left without fully understanding what had been discussed? Or, worse yet, have you been bored or insulted because you already knew most of what was presented? Too much or too little context can be disastrous in business communications. So as you’re drafting your next presentation, memo or meeting agenda, take some time to think about what your audience already knows and what they need.
- When communicating to your team: For the most part, my team knows where we’re headed and understands our objectives. So in routine department meetings, I can skip a lot of the context and move quickly to the bottom line. If the topic is new, I provide more context.
- When communicating to your boss: Senior leaders want to know one thing: What does this mean for the business? They don’t have the time or the brain space to take in a lot of detail. So when I want to communicate something to my boss, I keep it short, sweet and to the point. Generally, little context is required but I am always prepared to deliver detail, if needed.
- When communicating to your organization: The broader the audience, the more context you need. When I send a company-wide communication, I have to assume it’s the first time some people have heard about the topic or issue. I can’t use shortcuts. I can’t use internal or industry jargon that some people may not understand. And I can’t refer to shared experiences. I have to tell the whole story.
- When communicating globally: Different cultures typically require different levels of context in communications. In the 1970s, anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the phrase “high-context and low-context cultures” to describe the amount of background information that’s needed to effectively communicate an idea. North American and German-speaking countries, for example, are considered low-context cultures, which means people in those countries typically want a lot of background information, and appreciate it when your message is direct, logical and loaded with facts. Japan and Arab countries are considered high-context cultures, which means people in those countries may not need a lot of background to understand your message. Typically, they tend to care more about the tone of your communication.
3. Time it right. When I communicate with individual members of my team, the frequency of those communications and level of context that’s needed is often dictated by how long we have worked together and their stage of development in their role. With someone who’s completely new to my department and the position, I’m very hands on. We talk about tactics, I give specific direction and we touch base often. I meet less frequently with more experienced members of my team, since our talks are typically less about tactics and more about vision and direction. In those cases, less talk is sometimes more valuable.
These three rules boil down to a single conclusion about how to communicate successfully: Know your audience. Understand what they know, what they need, what they expect and what they value before you draft and deliver your communication. The clearer the picture of your audience, the clearer your message will be.
Jo Eisenhart is the senior vice president of Human Resources, Facilities and Philanthropy at Northwestern Mutual.