By Paul Hull
Good communications involve words, attitudes, and people
We can call it training, learning, or education, but it all depends on good communication, whether it’s between the office and the jobsite, between people who all work in the office, or people who always work outside in the field. Nor does it make much difference if the people involved are at different levels in the organization, because the same message can be received differently depending on the way it is transmitted. We’ve all seen sports coaches ranting and raving at their players, and other coaches who advise and encourage. You may have experienced superiors in the military who were bullies with the power of rank and others who were true leaders, or teachers who seemed to help students and others who seemed more intent of showing how smart they were. The lesson we have all known is that the attitude and knowledge of the giver of the communication can be as important as those of the receivers.
“I told them what to do” may be a good statement to defend oneself when one’s subordinates mishandled a job or situation. Or it may be only half the truth. If I tell you what needs to be done and you don’t understand what I’m talking about (and you may be too conscious of rank to question the communication) then I might as well have told you nothing. The giver of the order, the sender of the communication, must be knowledgeable about the subject, and the receiver must know enough to understand what is required. Subordinates and colleagues must be encouraged to say “I don’t know what you mean” when they hear instructions or orders that confuse them. There are messages between office and field personnel where the content may be quite technical. Does the receiver know the terms used? Does the sender know the terms and that they are right for the receiver’s situation? Does the sender know where the receiver is and exactly what he is doing?
The easiest excuse for poor communication is to allege that the parties involved speak different languages. The language involved may be, for example, English and Spanish. In North America there has been a growing number of good workers available whose English is not perfect. Their native language may not be English–it may be Spanish, for example. There is more than the simple language that makes a difference for these people; they may have grown up in a completely different atmosphere of work. (In one decade the number of fatal work injuries in the general construction industry for non-native English speakers grew more than 300 percent, and probably not because the workers were inferior in attitude or ambition.) Among the aspects of everyday work that were not completely explained to workers not speaking English as their native tongue had been proper on-the-job training and documentation. Things like professional skills and safety requirements. Do all your employees know your organization’s safety procedures? “Anybody would know those things” is not an adequate answer. If you want your employees to act responsibly in the office and out at the jobsite you must tell them, teach them, what they must know and make sure they have understood what you were saying.
It’s not just the national language used. The “language” may be the latest buzzwords or technical phrases that one person knows but the other has never heard. That is always a danger in technical communications, and many messages and instructions for utility workers involve technical concepts and words. It doesn’t help the worker if his or her supervisor uses terms that may be perfectly correct but are equally unknown to the listener. The other side of that coin is if the worker in the field knows more about the daily techniques and tools than the higher-ranked person giving the instructions. But communication is not a competition! We are not trying to show who is smarter. We are trying to show that we can work together to achieve good results. Experts in teaching communication skills often remind us that the process should be two-way. A manager or supervisor who communicates a new policy or procedure should be prepared to accept questions. That does not condone employees challenging the authority of their bosses but it does accept that ways and means of implementing new procedures should be clearly understood. The authors of instructions may not always have considered all the “what ifs” that a person in the field may imagine immediately.
Levels of Knowledge Affect Communications
Our first communications were when we were little children and we were learning to communicate with the rest of the world by means other than funny little noises or screams. We gradually learned how to make our feelings known to our parents and siblings by using words, and words are what we use to communicate for the rest of our lives. I have heard many people complain recently–people in different occupations like postal workers, accountants, field technicians, company presidents–that accurate language is disintegrating. They blame the influence of rapid communications, abbreviated words in emails and text messages, the latest words in favor for young people.
Communication is not only the words used. It can be the way they are said or written. When I was a boy, a clever neighbor told me this. YYURYYUBICURYY4ME. It took me several minutes to realize what he was saying and I was quite annoyed that he should get such delight out of fooling a small boy with nonsense that was supposed to be clever. Good communication starts with the giver of the message. No. It starts earlier than that with the giver knowing what he or she was going to talk about. A communicator who has confidence in his ability to pass on his knowledge is obviously going to succeed more efficiently than one who does not really understand the message himself. That confidence is catching. If the speaker (or writer) obviously knows his subject, the listeners (or readers) will tend to understand the message more clearly.
While words are the essence of communication, presentation matters, too. If your communication is at the jobsite, it helps if you look the other person in the eye. That shows you are interested in him or her and not just in the importance of yourself. If you are talking to a group, don’t be afraid to pause if some of the group aren’t paying attention. Tell them the message is important and you need them to listen, for their own benefit and safety. You may find that some kind of basic drawing helps make your point. You don’t have to be an artist and you don’t have to use computerized illustrations. In a study of some non-English-speaking workers it was found that a crude drawing of what would happen if they were careless on a ladder or platform made the point better than many words.
Some of the best instructors for new employees are experienced employees who know most of the answers to everyday problems. Placing a novice in the care of an experienced employee can be a good idea. The newcomer will use the experienced person as a mentor but the learning should not be simply copying, because copying may not be exact and a simple step may be missed because the newcomer just didn’t notice it. There should be real teaching, learning, and testing in the experienced-newcomer relationship. If that means offering the experience worker some incentive to be an instructor for some of his day, so be it. The cost would be an inexpensive form of reliable training.
One of the advantages of having your experienced, efficient workers participate in the training of new employees is that the bond is closer, more of a partnership between similar employees than an employee-boss relationship. It is crucial, of course, that management see the results of the training and approve it.
Technologies and People
It’s amazing what you can do with a cell phone today, isn’t it? Communications products have become more sophisticated and offer capabilities that only a decade ago would have boggled the average mind. For efficient communications, however, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the most advanced, most expensive product is the best for your purposes. It would be pointless, wouldn’t it?, having a brilliant cell phone and nobody who could receive your information? Some computer users imagine that the tool itself is the intelligence that will produce good reports or wise communications. The human element in communications can never be underestimated because understanding is the key to good communication. If both parties in communication understand the issues, the results are usually good.
People in utilities with whom I have spoken tell me that cell phones are, by far, the most popular means of communication between office and technician in the field, between jobsite and equipment source, between one jobsite and another. It is not, however, the cell phone itself which is the heart of the communication. It is the person using it, for sending and receiving. Think of your communication tool as a kind of television. It doesn’t matter how wonderful your picture or sound is, if the program is awful.
Communications can make any project successful or disastrous. In the utility sector there are probably more frequent communications than in any other industrial sector because so many of our colleagues and employees will be working in places nowhere near us. Communications with field technicians are a constant part of the day’s work, not something that happens only a few times a week. It’s not difficult to make communications good and effective, if we remember that both senders and receivers must understand the message and know how to act upon it.
*Too wise you are, too wise you be, I see you are too wise for me.