Effectively communicating with your staff is a critical skill for laboratory managers. In particular, staff members have to feel that the manager is providing valid information, not withholding relevant information, and is willing to listen. If the manager can accomplish this, there is no need for staff to seek information elsewhere. Timely communications can reduce rumors, improve productivity,  and improve morale.   So what can lab managers do to earn communication credibility?

Articulate clear mission and vision statements for the laboratory

These define the values and goals of your laboratory, organizational strategies and tactics for achieving these,  and create a sense of personal ownership by your staff.    These also provide guideposts for why certain organizational decisions are made.

Speak Honestly

Speak honestly when communicating with employees.    If your staff discovers that they were deliberately misinformed, the manager loses credibility and effectiveness as a leader. Only make promises that can be kept.  As a recent  example,  a  manager promised staff that there would be no laboratory staff layoffs. Less than a month later, there was a 10 percent staff reduction. The manager lost all credibility, and the staff began to work more independently, no longer going to the manager for guidance.

Admit when you were wrong. If you don’t know something, admit that you don’t know.

Be sure your employees get credit for their accomplishments.  Giving staff members credit for their work engenders additional loyalty and respect, which is often reflected in greater productivity. Even if the staff member isn’t in the room, he or she probably will hear about what you did.

Avoid the  proprietary “need-to-know” attitude. Employees like to know what is going on. Keep them informed to the maximum extent possible. Sometimes this means saying, “I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out”; sometimes, it means admitting that you don’t know the answer and aren’t likely to be able to find out. While staff members won’t like the answer they hear, they’ll be more likely to accept the situation.

Be precise, clear, and specific 

Precision and clarity are essential to both oral and written communication. Precision means saying exactly what you intend to say. Clarity means saying it in such a way that it will be understood by the person receiving the message. Precision and clarity overlap, but it is possible to be precise without being clear or vice versa.

Be specific.  Individual listener’s interpretation of what you say may not match your intent. For example, “as soon as possible” can mean different things to different people. So it helps to attach specific dates to deadlines.

Actively Listen

Be an active listener during discussions with employees. Adopt a posture that indicates active listening, and maintain eye contact. Ask open-ended questions to verify that they understand the message you are trying to send. Nod or make affirmative gestures or comments to indicate that you understand what they are saying.

Take notes, if necessary. This indicates your strong interest in what other parties in the conversation are telling you and your interest in what they have to say.

Be open-minded and respect the ideas and opinions of your staff members. Control unintentional message senders such as letting your eyes wander, folding your arms, or leaning away from someone.. Remember, body language can speak volumes about your attitude.

Adopt a participatory management style:  allow employees to have a sense of ownership

Participatory management is the practice of empowering employees to participate in organizational decision making. Because they are actively involved in the decision-making process, employees are more likely to be active listeners themselves and to turn communication into a two-way process in which information flows both to and from the manager.

Actively seek advice from your staff. Being directly involved, they have more of a “ground up”  perspective that may be different from yours. This means hearing other perspectives on what is happening. By actively seeking input and advice from your staff members, you are demonstrating your respect for them and their opinions. Encourage your employees to ask questions. Then be sure that their questions are answered. Make yourself available to your employees.

Practice “management by walking around” (MBWA)

This is more than just a stroll through labs and offices; it’s a determined effort to understand what your staff does and to learn how you can help them do it better. Casual discussions can be very illuminating and motivating; it can also be a very effective way to prevent workplace rumors or limit their harmful effects.

MBWA also promotes two-way communication. When your staff sees you as a person and not just a manager, they’ll be more likely to tell you what’s going on. You’ll get the chance to learn about issues before they become problems. You’ll gain a better understanding of your staff members’ work processes. As your staff gets to know you better, they’ll trust you more.

Interacting with your staff members increases their sense of responsibility in meeting deadlines and achieving goals.

Once you establish the habit, maintain it. MBWA is not something you can turn on and off.  You need to practice it consistently for it to be an effective technique.

 Thus….

Establishing effective bi-directional communication requires thought and constant effort. However, it’s well worth the effort.