8 mins

Picture this: it’s Monday morning, the cat has already been sick on the carpet twice today, and as you get your morning cup of coffee ready you realize the milk's gone off (of course).

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You finally get settled at your desk only to notice your laptop installing an hour's worth of updates (of course), so you resign yourself to checking your emails from your phone. By the time your laptop is done updating you’re already late to your first meeting (of course) and as you hear the delivery driver ring your doorbell, your new, overly enthusiastic product manager (PM) once again proposes a sprint scope so large, any hopes you had of minimizing your burnout symptoms go right out the window.

It’s only 10am, but you’re already too fed up to disagree constructively – after all, that’s what you did the last three times, and look where it got you? So instead, you sigh loudly, roll your eyes, and simply say, ‘Sure… whatever. It’s never gonna work but hey, you’re the boss’.

While this exchange may leave you feeling slightly more empowered (sticking it to the proverbial man is a great way to feel like you’re reclaiming control), it also makes your new PM shrink in on themselves. Starting a new job in a field she’s never worked in before has got her all kinds of insecure, and she’s keen to show her superiors that she’s competent and can motivate a team to go above and beyond. But instead of the rallying, ‘we can do this’ vibe she expected, she’s left feeling disenchanted and alone.

The cost of negativity

When we’re in a negative spiral, we’re usually too preoccupied with how we’re feeling and what we’re going through to think about how our behavior is influencing the people around us. Shockingly, a survey on bad work days uncovered that the second-highest contributing factor to someone having a bad day at work is negative coworkers. But we’re hurting ourselves, too. Negative-minded employees are more likely to become mentally fatigued and defensive, leading them to be less cooperative and helpful in the long run.

But bad communication doesn’t just come at an emotional price. A 2011 study concluded that there’s a cost of $26,041 per employee, per year, due to productivity losses resulting from communication barriers. Conversely, companies that have leaders who are highly effective communicators had 47% higher total returns to shareholders over the last five years compared with firms that have leaders who are the least effective communicators.

What are communication guidelines? 

While a code of conduct aims to address general (and usually, more severe) rules and expectations of a community, communication guidelines explicitly deal with verbal and written interactions.

These guidelines are not the place to announce your zero-tolerance stance on drugs in the workplace – nor are they the place to make the consequences of sexual harassment explicit. These things are non-negotiable table stakes and there are other, more formal ways to take care of them.

Most importantly, the guidelines are in no way to be misused to ban any kind of conflict. It is crucial that employees feel allowed to challenge their peers’ and superiors’ opinion. Too little conflict stifles the exchange of new perspectives and information – something especially important for innovative work. What’s more, teams need to go through and resolve conflict in order to become mature, organized, and well-functioning.

Do I need communication guidelines? 

In short – yes.

Employees often experience the workplace differently than their managers and executives. 

Studies have shown that executives tend to have a much rosier outlook when it comes to workplace empathy. The 2020 State of Workplace Empathy report found that 91% of CEOs say their own company is empathetic, but only 68% of employees agree.

Remember, just because nobody is boldly voicing their concerns doesn’t mean there are none. It’s been proven that women speak up less when they’re outnumbered. This statistic only gets worse with increasing marginalization. 

Communication guidelines empower the silent majority. They give them the tools and vocabulary to speak up against non-constructive behavior, and they clearly signal to everyone that psychological safety is top of mind.

How can I write effective communication guidelines?

Work on it with people outside of your bubble

The things that frustrate engineers are not the same things that frustrate designers, and PMs usually have quite a different communication style than system architects. Work on the guidelines in a multidisciplinary team so that you can look at the issues from all angles. Remember, the goal of these guidelines is to ease communication across a vast range of personalities, so make up your task force of people from varied backgrounds and constitutions. Be mindful to include marginalized groups, as their experiences are often vastly different.

Provide concrete examples of what not to do – and why

If you or your colleagues have experienced non-constructive communication behaviors in the past, now is a great time to bring those up. Try to find examples that are generic enough to be applicable to a number of situations, but still specific enough for you to point out why that particular behavior is discouraged. If you’re stuck, use common soundbites like, ‘This is never going to work’, or ‘What’s the point?’. 

In addition, remember to explain why these behaviors are discouraged. Some people genuinely have blind spots when it comes to identifying lacking communication, so it’s helpful to explain exactly why something should be corrected.

Provide concrete examples of what to do instead

Changing the way you communicate is hard. And it’s even harder for people that aren’t well versed in it. Empower your team by giving concrete examples of how to voice their opinion in a more constructive way. As previously mentioned, we don’t want to eliminate discourse, so it’s important that you give your team the tools to do it in a safe and respectful way. Instead of saying, ‘That is never going to work’, ask them to soften their sentiment by saying, ‘I don’t think that will work because [...]. How can we address these risks?’.

Make it a living, breathing document

We’ve all experienced at least one management initiative that went nowhere. Don’t let these guidelines become one of them. Encourage your managers to regularly solicit feedback regarding the guidelines from their direct reports – both positive and negative. And make sure you regularly revisit the document and change or add items as appropriate. Ultimately, these guidelines belong to the whole team – make sure they know their opinion matters.

Define consequences

The quickest way to ensure nobody follows a rule is to make it very easy to ignore. The communication guidelines should be taken seriously by employees, managers, and executives alike. It is imperative that you work with your peers to define clear consequences for employees who continuously disregard the guidelines. The first step should always be addressing it with the relevant party in a 1:1 – more often than not, no further action is needed. However, make sure that you’re prepared to enact consequences should the need ever arise. 

Name communication champions

Sometimes, speaking to a peer is much more comfortable than speaking to your manager. Therefore, elect some communication champions – ideally over a range of hierarchy and functions – that will lend an ear to anyone experiencing negative communication at work. It’s important to give everyone a way to express grievances; a trusted communication champion can act as a mediator between the affected parties and you can draft new guidelines once the problem has been addressed.

Be brave and lead by example

Speaking out is never comfortable, no matter how many times you’ve done it. Now that you and your team have a set of guidelines to follow, you need to lead by example and show your team that it is ok and even encouraged to call people’s attention to their communication style if needed. It might take a while until others follow your lead, but you’ll be surprised at how many people come out of their shells once they deem it safe to do so. 

Conclusion

From harming our bottom line to promoting burnout and increasing employee turnover – bad communication harms our businesses and our people.

As tech leaders, we’re responsible for ensuring the psychological safety of our employees – not only because of its clear benefits to innovation and workplace culture. Unlike a code of conduct, communication guidelines aim to enable effective communication across functions, levels of experience, age, hierarchy, and more. They help your team gain a common understanding of the do’s and don’ts of effective communication and can foster constructive, safe conflict resolution.

But more important than the document itself are the actions that follow it. Ensuring every employee can provide feedback is crucial, as is defining clear consequences and following through on them. Your communication guidelines are as unique as your team – nobody can write them for you. And as your team evolves, it’s important to let your guidelines evolve with them, too.

As the world has gotten more distributed (and maybe a bit more distant), let’s keep in mind that we are all humans. Solid communication skills don’t come naturally to everyone, just like nobody wakes up having magically internalized the Agile manifesto from one day to the next.

We have best practices for so many aspects of our daily work and life – why should communication be any different?