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Fixing workplace communication – How to beat the Chinese whispers

In English


Workplaces are currently facing a wide range of communication challenges, including technology-related stress, a listening crisis, a need for genuine interaction, and power struggles in negotiations. Is it time to take the bull by the horns and change the direction of communication?

Every member of the work community should have the right to put their views forward for discussion and evaluation – being seen and heard adds meaning to work. And there should always be a discussion to check how things are understood, what questions and queries are left unanswered, and how outstanding issues can be resolved.

“In one-way communication, the recipient may not understand what the information shared means for their particular job and how to act on it. Therefore, joint reflection is needed, and, sometimes, also questioning and critical feedback,” Juholin advises.

When in a hurry and haste at work, many may think: ‘But there are clear instructions in our Intranet! There’s no time or need to go through the instructions with each individual!’

“There are situations in the workplace where it is necessary to communicate the same information to everyone in the same format and at the same time. If misunderstandings or outright mistakes arise, it may take more time to resolve them than to have a proactive discussion. Dialogue is also needed when going through seemingly simple instructions,” says Juholin.

Once instructions have been given in writing, it is a good idea to go over them orally and practice or try them out, as appropriate. At the same time, it is essential to allow time for specific questions. This way, everyone learns, and the person giving the instructions gets feedback.

Interaction can and should be studied

All employees have a responsibility to interact in the workplace: everyone must clarify ambiguities, bring their own views to the discussion, and listen to what others have to say. Since workplace relationships and interactions are also always about power in one way or another, the greatest responsibility for the workplace communication culture lies with supervisors and managers.

“Power requires responsibility and interaction skills. It is important for supervisors to be aware of their own ways of interacting with others. All managers and supervisors should be properly familiarised and trained in interaction,” says Leena Mikkola, Associate Professor of Communication Sciences at the University of Tampere.

That’s right, trained! It may come as a surprise to many that you can and should study interaction to become good at it. There is a wide range of training courses on offer, but fortunately, there is also good quality learning available. According to Mikkola, you can only speak of competence when you have a solid knowledge base.

Open Universities offer good research-based communication teaching, and communication researchers are also excellent trainers – so don’t be afraid to ask the university for advice and recommendations on developing workplace communication.

“It is always worth making sure that a trainer has some knowledge of communications. It is true that you can become skilled by doing, but experience does not make a qualified teacher. A good trainer can be identified by their ability to explain the theoretical basis of the training and the research that has been done,” says Mikkola.

Find a common denominator and make progress in negotiations

Power relations are not just about the relationship between a superior and an employee, but can also be seen between employees. Who has the most say in decisions: the senior employee, the project manager, or the highly educated rookie?

Mikkola has studied the communication of multidisciplinary teams in the health and social care sector and has noticed that there is a struggle for power between experts representing different professions. Similar challenges can arise in the interaction of any team.

“People are often so deep within their own sector or issue that conflicts arise in discussions. It is easy to ‘push’ one’s own views in negotiations because one wants to influence the issue at hand, while, at the same time, not listening to the views of others,” says Mikkola.

A good communicator tries to identify what the negotiators have in common when they enter a situation.

In conflicting situations, Mikkola urges a change of perspective – not to emphasise differences but to find common denominators: ‘You are a doctor and I am a nurse, but we are the same age, we have the same length of career and we both want the best for our patients.’

“A good communicator tries to identify what the negotiators have in common when they enter a situation. In the interaction, it is possible to defuse the struggle for power by, for example, pointing to a unifying issue,” Mikkola encourages.

In addition, in multi-professional teams, as in other teams, it is good to emphasise the importance of working together and the things that ‘we did together’.

“The best team situations are born out of the experience that a common goal drives the team forward and the team produces the end result together,” she says.

How to reduce technostress

In many workplaces, electronic platforms have become an essential part of communication and interaction. Guidelines for action and information are shared on a myriad of electronic communication platforms, such as intranets, Teams and Whatsapp groups.

Digital channels have their advantages because they are fast, efficient and there is room for discussion, if you want to get involved. However, too many communication channels can lead to technology-related stress, i.e. technological overload. It’s hard to concentrate if you have to be active on the intranet, Whatsapp, Teams, email and who knows where all at the same time.

“Before long, communication can become ineffective if people don’t even know what message to respond to, and where to be and when,” says Juholin.

Workplaces are currently trying to find a balance between what can be done remotely and when to meet.

He suggests that the team, at the beginning of the project, decides on the main communication channel and what issues will be addressed through other channels.

During the pandemic, many organisations learned to work remotely. Not everyone could stay at home to work, but a large proportion of those who did so found that they missed the social contacts of the workplace. Over the months, however, people got used to remote working and saw the benefits: no need to sit in traffic jams and a different way of concentrating on work than in an open office.

Workplaces are currently trying to find a balance between what can be done remotely and when to meet.

“Teleconferences have a role to play in dealing with issues that are known in advance or are routine, when there is no need for in-depth reflection and discussion. In training situations, remote communication also works if the participants are not expected to actively participate,” says Juholin.

Virtual or face-to-face?

The problem with virtual meetings is the lack of presence. The interaction on the computer screen is not as immediate as when face-to-face. Things get done, but the important dimension of interaction, non-verbal communication, is missing, if not completely absent. In a Teams meeting, what message does it send to others if you mute the microphone and black out the screen?

“For online meetings, it is important to establish ground rules for the kind of communication that participants commit to. Some people are frustrated and even offended if some are present in principle but absent in practice, or even in another meeting at the same time,” says Juholin.

He urges people to consider whether it is worth automatically exporting every project to technological platforms or whether the old way of sitting at the same table and making a single memo might work better.

Face-to-face communication is needed when developing new things – exchanging ideas and views.

“Face-to-face communication is the most valuable form of communication, as presence, facial expressions, gestures, pauses and movements contain a lot of information and also reveal the current emotional state. When dealing with complex or controversial issues that may give rise to misinterpretations and even opposition, it is worth starting with close communication.”

A face-to-face meeting allows the team leader to get direct feedback, hear different views and concerns, answer questions and try to resolve outstanding issues. Team members, in turn, can ask questions and think out loud, make comments and discuss together in the here and now.

“At the same time, you can show empathy for each other and accept the importance of emotions, even when dealing with rational work issues,” Juholin adds.


10 ways to improve communication and interaction in your workplace

  1. Behave well and show respect for others.
  2. Do not insult or invalidate the opinions of others.
  3. Raise issues well in advance and find out who to contact about each issue.
  4. Accept or be willing to understand different views, even if you disagree with them.
  5. Share your observations and concerns that are relevant to the work community or your own work.
  6. Make suggestions and bring your ideas to the attention of others and for evaluation.
  7. Discuss negative feelings in the workplace with your colleagues and supervisor, not on social media, for example.
  8. Provide feedback and criticism constructively and accept feedback yourself.
  9. Don’t dominate the discussion, and critically evaluate your own views too.
  10. Strengthen your workplace dialogue and interaction skills by getting trained.

The tips were given by Elisa Juholin, Adjunct Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Helsinki and the Jyväskylä School of Business and Economics.