Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

What does poor communication cost businesses?

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Between reduced productivity, lost talent and other direct and indirect losses, a recent Unify survey indicates lackluster communication can cost businesses up to $5,000 per employee each year. Communication isn’t rocket science, but it does require thought and care.

A cornerstone of business communication is the feedback system, whether formal – by way of performance reviews, or informal – addressing an employee’s performance (good or bad) and outlining potential course corrections.

Feedback, especially among a leadership team, is critical to a business leader’s growth and decision-making. Frequently, however, the idea of feedback – what it really means – gets misconstrued. Sometimes those in leadership positions think they are providing proper feedback when they simply reprimand an employee as a result of a mistake or error.  And while it is important to address mistakes and errors, as C-Level leaders, feedback is often inefficient because there’s no plan in place for these types of communications. “Gotcha” leadership is no leadership at all.

Some of the common feedback mistakes include examples like an executive giving his/her opinion instead of stating facts, another making sarcastic and/or disparaging remarks about an employee’s error, and still another would be to berate an employee in such a way that it changes the very subject of the conversation – the employee’s performance, and shifted it to “what the heck did I do to deserve this?” then subsequently having a discussion that yields no positive outcome regarding individual growth.

In order to correct (or sustain) performance, we need to engage employees and improve the business enterprise, proper feedback needs to be helpful (first and foremost), as well as relevant and timely.

To be clear: feedback is information provided to another person to help him or her grow and improve. If a leader isn’t trying to help someone grow/improve, he or she isn’t providing feedback. Criticism, more than likely, but not feedback. A true leader finds ways to sincerely help subordinates, not use veiled criticism or overt tongue-lashings. Face it; it doesn’t take much skill to be a jerk.

In addition to being helpful to an individual employee, feedback in business should be helpful to the enterprise as a whole. Leaders must think beyond performance reviews and reactive feedback necessitated by a mistake or problem. Take a proactive approach to feedback by identifying and focusing on the desirable behaviors and making corrections as needed, but in a thoughtful manner. Feedback is most effective when leaders take the time and attention to outline a proactive communication plan, instead of relying on performance reviews during which the manager will feel obligated to restate old one-liners and stock company blurbs. Or worse, a software solution that fills in the wording automatically.

If feedback isn’t relevant and engaging, leaders are wasting their time. Non-specific feedback, at best, leaves the employee wondering how he or she can improve or avoid making the same error(s) in the future; at worst, non-specific feedback leaves the employee totally confused and unmotivated to improve performance. Vague communication at performance reviews leads to misunderstanding and often future meetings to better clarify the feedback given.

Relevant, engaging feedback is personal and tailored to ensure the employee can actually comprehend the message. Before a leader begins the dialog, he or she needs to begin with the end in mind. Determine if the goal is to simply win an argument, or if the goal is to act as a change agent for an employee (trying to change behavior). Hopefully, the desired outcome is to improve the employee’s performance, and the leader can dedicate a little time and heartfelt effort to preparing for the communication, to decrease the likelihood that the topic of the feedback will be subject matter next time around.

Leaders should also give feedback in a way and at a time that can be best received by the employee. Let’s say a marketing executive makes a boneheaded snafu in a press release by mistakenly using 2013 sales data instead of intended data from 2014 – the latter of which provides a year-to-year profit bump of 20 percent. If the CEO would rather string the EVP of Marketing up outside the window than speak in a helpful and relevant manner, then perhaps the CEO should wait a bit before talking with the marketing chief. That’s not to say that a reprimand be avoided, but only that feedback should be practical to the event, behavior or action that necessitated the discussion and provided at a time when its relevance can be best understood.

Certainly, threat of a severe reprimand may help prevent such an error from occurring in the future, but does it improve the EVP of Marketing? Does it benefit the whole enterprise, or merely lend credence to the longstanding belief that the head honcho tolerates no mistakes and, thus, can be impossible to work for? Timely, responsive feedback fosters awareness and understanding, creating an environment focused on personal and professional growth; growth that positively impacts the entire enterprise. The sooner employees recognize that and truly believe that is the environment in which they work, the better the organization will be.

Leadership success is established and developed through helpful, relevant and timely feedback. Feedback fosters trust, and trust is the currency of leadership. The more employees believe in their leaders, the more comfortable they will be providing feedback and helpful insight to their managers. Proper feedback – provided, accepted and acted upon – creates a system of learning after every mistake, making them, therefore, easier to swallow. Employees crave feedback that improves them professionally, and perhaps personally as well. Without it, leaders may only get what they pay for and not an ounce of effort more.  And perhaps as damaging – the organization may have a very difficult time retaining talent.

As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

And in this case, an ounce of prevention may be worth $5,000 per employee per year.

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