Communicate like a boss and maybe one day you'll become one. Here's how.

Today, everybody has a million different method of workplace communication. Thanks to smartphones, social media and the 'workshifting' culture, instant communication is easier and more varied than ever. At the same time, our limited attention spans make us more distracted and distant from each other. With a lack of clear boundaries between in and out-of-office communication, confusion is common.

In this context, I'd like to share a handful of workplace communication principles I think are most important. These cover both tried-and-true areas (like active listening) as well as 21st-century ones (like email etiquette and when to use cloud-based messaging apps).

Active listening in the workplace

Let's start with old-fashioned conversation. One of the great misunderstood conversational tactics is active listening in the workplace. Contrary to popular belief, active listening is not merely the act of passively not speaking while someone else is speaking, but it is listening so carefully that you can jump in when necessary to help the other person complete a thought or move the conversation forward. Practice active listening, and you will have a greater impact in your daily interactions. Avoid the false choices of not listening at all or keeping your mouth shut the entire time.

Email and instant-message etiquette

Let's move to email. Consider one of the great workplace communication rules of Marsha Egan, a workplace productivity coach: “If it's an emergency, don't email.” She says in urgent situations you should pick up the phone or walk to the other person's work station. In fact, anything that requires a response in under 3 hours should not involve email because it reinforces the toxic idea that email is an appropriate emergency response system. Common sense, right?

Another rule is don't automatically hit 'reply-all.' Be more sparing in your use of it and be judicious with 'c.c.'s by asking yourself whether a potential recipient really needs to see the message before hitting 'send.' This prevents exponential wastes of time on the part of people reading unnecessary messages and recovering from interruptions to read these messages.

Another great thing to remember about email and workplace communication is that it's not a substitute for conversation. It is designed to send files and other communications, not have a dialog. If you need to have an actual conversation with somebody, you should get in front of their face, pick up the phone (if time/distance are an issue), or use a real-time messaging app like Slack or Salesforce Chatter. Real-time messages are less likely to be overlooked because unlike email, they do not compete with the outside world of customers/clients, partners and spammers for your attention. It's simple.

Finally, with email, you want to be checking it periodically on your own time, not like a mouse pushing a lever for a food pellet (or a junkie perpetually looking for the next fix). Schedule your email checking time and don't waver from it, lest you fall into a deep email vacuum where all productivity ceases.

I'll leave the subject of email with a question from another productivity guru I once read: “Is answering emails the highest and best use of your time?” Put another way, do you want to be known for being good at reading emails, or the actual thing you were hired for? If the answer is the latter, you should keep email at arm's length. There's a place for it, but you generally have so many better things you can be doing with your time that constant interruptions don't serve. Don't fall into the trap of compulsive checking.

The power of face time

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is still no substitute for face-to-face conversation. The reason I call attention to one-on-one dialog is because in today's always-on virtual communication buffet, we have 1,000 different ways NOT to talk to somebody face-to-face. Skype and videoconferencing tools are your best friends when traditional 'physical' meetings are impractical.

Skeptical of whether meeting face-to-face still matters? Of all the new trends in higher-education marketing Chris M. Kormis (CMO, Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business) could have listed in a recent interview, she actually named the in-person visit as among the most powerful. Yes, the message is obvious: Time spent in person with someone else is still crucial. By being able to exchange information personally, read body language, listen carefully to intonation and see other nonverbal cues, you get a fuller picture than any electronic media could offer. Taking it back to workplace communication, when you need to explore a complex subject with somebody, interact in a more sophisticated way or otherwise get deep, start talking more … face-to-face.

Organizational workplace communication

Consider the communication style of your organization. Is it largely open and transparent? Does it employ 360-degree reviews of people for comprehensive peer feedback across organizational levels? Is two-way dialog encouraged? Are employees given sufficient information about the direction and priorities of the business? If not, you want to be living by example and agitating for this change … or joining the company whose culture already embodies it.

Sometimes effective organizational communication entails addressing a darker side. New research from Harvard Business School shows companies can save serious money by avoiding the wrong hires and cutting 'bad actors.' Indeed, contrary to conventional wisdom, just hiring superstars is actually 50% less valuable than removing bad actors in the workplace. When a company recognizes cultural fit as a top priority and regulates accordingly, you want to make sure you fit that culture before you start and determine behavioral expectations for what people at Company X do or don't do.

Then, once you're integrated into the organization, raise concerns about any violations of company culture you see. Ask questions about values that need clarification as applied to daily work life. You can avoid potential damage to your reputation as a good 'corporate citizen' by actively addressing any questions about your relative influence on intra-office harmony. This kind of personal diplomacy and intimate understanding of a company's cultural values can go a long way toward finding and keeping your dream job.

Fighting workplace bullies

Speaking of removing the cancers, watch out for workplace bullies … all 3 kinds of them, as outlined in an insightful Graziadio Business Review article. Bullying represents a destructive behavior that is an innovation- and competiveness-killer. I'd also recommend reading The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene to help identify clear patterns in how people use (and abuse) power. The lessons imparted in this book can help you defend yourself against those who would use their status to harm you, your colleagues, or ultimately, the organization.

Emotional I.Q. (E.Q.)

As management thinkers are starting to point out, another underrated element of both business and general communication is emotional intelligence. In addition to keeping your feelings in check under pressure, the so-called 'soft skills' like listening, massaging egos and managing conflict are traditionally undervalued in corporate environments, but in today's knowledge economy are prized. Why? Because in order to successfully collaborate, you need to be able to read people. You need political skills. You need to know when to push and when to hold back. You need to be able to deal effectively with the inevitable stress that accompanies any job. Understanding the volatility of people's emotions (including your own) and being sensitive to interpersonal dynamics goes a long way toward maintaining composure and leading with a steady hand.

The best leaders are not necessarily the most visible or vocal; in fact, quiet leadership and 'background' support is now recognized as an integral component of a high-functioning modern workplace. And some people just prefer to assist behind-the-scenes without putting their name in lights. These people are usually experts in active listening in the workplace and other workplace communication methods. Executive management may now have greater appreciation for the work of these 'silent' contributors, thanks to the higher profile of E.Q.

Moral of the story: If you communicate like a boss, then there's a good chance you'll end up being one. And a good one at that!

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