By Betsey Upchurch

When I go into companies, I always hear that communication is an issue. That’s because we humans are complex and the coding of ideas and thoughts into words is clumsy. When, where, how and what to communicate is only clear-cut at the extremes and most of our work is somewhere in the middle. But communication is the key to employees who are excited, take responsibility, and look for ways to add value.

Telling – Many leaders tell their people what, where, how, and sometimes why. That kind of telling encourages people to quit thinking and either comply or resist. That is because workers like autonomy to do their job. The kind of telling people do need is clear vision about what is supposed to be done and by whom, how their job fits into the big picture, what events are happening that might affect them and the company, what is working or not, and what your opinions are (while making it OK for them to have different ones).

Asking – Sometimes I hear questions like, “Why did you do that?” “What are you doing?” “Who did that?”. The problem isn’t the question but the tone. When questions are really statements or looking for who to blame, everyone knows it. The tone is different from when you really are just looking for information to understand the situation. Check your reasons before you ask your question.

Another kind of asking leads employees to think more deeply and broadly. “What other options do you see?” “What do you think will happen if you do that?” “How can we avoid this in the future?” “How should we look for better solutions?” People want to be challenged and to get better. These questions build resilience and perspective which allows employees to grow and learn. A side benefit is that when these are the kinds of questions that get asked, people quit hiding things to keep out of trouble.

Involving – Involving people in things that are meaningless, like committees that have no power or programs that they don’t care about or taking on more responsibility because managers or teammates are underperforming, is a huge de-motivator. Acting like they are somehow being recognized and appreciated because of it is even worse.

Truly involving people means giving them something purposeful to do – work on a problem that, if solved, makes a difference to the employees or the customer. All of us want our work to mean something – to make something better that is connected to something bigger than ourselves. Give employees the authority and resources to make a difference. It doesn’t mean you don’t need to know what they are doing; you still have to help them think, stay focused, and move obstacles from their path.

Appreciation – Appreciating well leads employees to think like owners, they anticipate needs, innovate, care about your customers and each other. They are accountable and engaged. It isn’t really such a mystery about how to get people to that point. The right kind of telling, asking, and involving leads you there – then you have to appreciate the added value your employees are bringing. Giving bonuses and prizes only works if it is meaningful to the person and if you aren’t playing favorites, giving everyone a “trophy” thereby diluting its value, or institutionalizing your appreciation through employee of the month type recognition.

“Thank You” goes a long way. Noticing when a person contributes and letting them and those around them know you noticed goes even further. Being consistent about looking for ways to let people know when they have done well is how you get ownership. That consistency allows people to see how what they do contributes to the whole and so they keep learning how to add value. It doesn’t have to cost money but it does have to be personal.

Learning to tell, ask, involve, and appreciate skillfully is an ongoing practice. Begin your practice today. It will take courage to suddenly start communicating differently but if you do you have everything to gain.