Engineering Manager: Effective Communication
Let's analyze the challenges of communication for engineering managers and review some tips to improve the process.
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In this article, a follow-up to the engineering manager series, we will analyze the challenges of communication and some tips to improve the process.
There are many definitions of communication, but a simple way we could define it for the context of this article is a process by which information is exchanged between people, the organization and the employees, the engineering manager and the engineers, teams or departments.
People usually associate good communication with other concepts such as organization transparency, open culture, or horizontal organizations. Some examples I was given by colleagues are the frequency of all-hands meetings, or the capacity to talk with important stakeholders in the company. Now, this is a fallacy of what good communication means, as all these are indicators of the culture of the company. These are in reality only the channels available to exchange information or the frequency of communication.
Communication provides value when is effective. This is the first question that we should ask ourselves as engineering managers or organizations—Is our or the organization's communication effective?
What Is Effective Communication?
In my view, effective communication is a process by which information is exchanged and the message is received and understood with clarity and purpose.
Now remember all the all-hands or global meetings you have participated in and think about:
- How many people were focused on the meeting
- How many people actually understood the message with clarity and purpose
- How many times we were focused on another task during the global meeting
As managers, if we are unable to respond to the first two questions, then this is the first point we need to improve. So there are three important questions, that we need to analyze before any communication:
- What is the purpose of the message and what are the goals we need to achieve?
- Who is the people target?
- Is the information clear to everybody?
- How are we going to check that the message has been received and understood by the people?
As managers, we are responsible to make sure we have all these questions covered in all scenarios. We need to break down the message together with the team, to make sure there are no misunderstandings. The common scenarios are:
- When we have the message before we perform the communication, even though we are or are not the speaker
- When we do not have the message before the communication
We always need to be aware of the message and the intended recipients, as many times the target audience for some messages are not all the people in the meeting.
In other cases, the purpose could be only an exercise of transparency or to increase motivation, focusing on understanding all the details is not important but the overall idea.
One example is the finance report, of course, part of the message has to be simple and understandable for everybody, but many times the rest is information that requires finance knowledge that not all people have.
The Consequences of Non-Effective Communication
The impact depends on the purpose of the communication, but the common ones are:
- Misalignment: The people are not working together to achieve the same goals and do not share a common purpose, but they think that they are. This is one of the most dangerous as we have two consequences the people's motivation being affected and the company´s goals not being achieved.
- De-Motivation: Motivation enables and drives people to achieve their goals. But feeling demotivated not only generates the opposite impact but also affects physical well-being as it spreads super fast through the teams and organizations.
- Not meeting expectations: Expectations are the beliefs that something will happen or that you will get something—and the meaning of "something" is important.
When the communication is not effective there are impacts on the organization's alignment. The first indicator of non-effective communication is not having a common and clear vision of the priorities and milestones between departments.
Often the simplest messages promote the worst misaligned situations as it gives way to interpretation.
Four Commons Scenarios
When C-levels provide simple messages without context, this can generate consequences on the alignment and the priorities of the teams. The main reason is that these words come from an important decision-maker in the company so many people understand that they have to change their priorities as soon as possible to achieve the new goal.
Messages such as "we have to increase the sales and all of you are sellers" can create a misalignment or de-motivation for many reasons. A very common example is a support engineer or software engineer that “has to be a seller.” The message should mean that all employees should identify upsell opportunities and share them with sales teams, and not that the engineer should start selling instead of focusing on the technical.
It usually happens that the expectations created around some initiative are not aligned among different teams. One of the reasons is that each team has a different experience, knowledge, and sometimes culture. A common issue is the misunderstanding when talking about product development between product, marketing, and sales teams. One could be talking about having the capacity to support use cases and the other could understand that some use cases will be implemented.
One to One
Common examples of not meeting expectations are promotions in terms of role or salary, sometimes the engineering manager doesn´t provide a clear message or the engineer doesn´t understand it. Usually, engineering managers can not guarantee promotion, because there are many factors that they cannot manage such as financial status or open vacancies. They provide the requirements to be eligible for a promotion and follow up with the engineer.
The culture of people depends a lot on the country where you are from or live. When you give a message to people from different countries is not understood in the same way, even in some cases can be a rude message for some of them. There are many differences for example between Spanish, Japanese, and North American culture, think about something as basic as tips:
- In the United States, tips are almost mandatory because they are a supplement to the salary.
- In Japan, tips are not accepted and may even cause problems for the employee.
- In Spain, tips are optional and usually in very small quantities.
Tips to Improve Effectiveness
A Consistent Message
Core messages create a more reliable and trusting relationship between employees, the organization, and also customers. The following are the common characteristic of consistent messages:
- Use simple language that is understandable for everyone.
- The message is aligned with all the departments or areas of the organization.
- The same message is provided by all the important stakeholders of the organization.
- The message is delivered across different channels meetings, newsletters, social media, or Slack.
- The purpose, goals, and expectations have to be clear and most cases measurable.
Providing a consistent message requires the actions to match with the message and this is the base to build a positive, high-performance, and trusting relationship.
Communication is composed of verbal (words through different channels) and nonverbal cues or "body language." Body language is the unspoken part of communication when we are speaking, we are instinctively using physical behavior, expressions, and different speech tones. In our day-to-day, usually, we are not focused on our body language and this is unconsciously shown so people feel when we are sad, happy, or upset.
In professional scenarios when we are delivering messages to our team, organization, or customer, body language is even more important than verbal. In these cases, our behavior and expressions whenever have to be conscious and aligned with the purpose.
The best communicators and leaders project their messages and vision mainly through their body language. Think of great leaders in history in whom you can perceive the strength of their message even though they speak in other languages you don't understand.
In this article, we are not providing specific tips to improve your body language but here is an interesting article "Powerful Body Language Hacks for Successful Leaders" by Galina Hitching.
Provide and Require Feedback
Feedback is very important to identify if the message has been understood correctly, sometimes feedback happens naturally but in other cases when people do not provide it, we should ask questions to clarify certain points. Remember that a message has a purpose so our duty is to verify that people understand the message.
Ask questions to clarify certain points: “What do you understand…”, “What is your opinion about?” or "Do you think it is an improvement?"
Always a Written Reference
Speaking messages are diffused in time think about how many messages we receive during the day, not only in our professional time but also outside. In addition, the human memory is complex and many times the memories are altered.
It is common that people do not remember some details or they remembered the messages in the wrong way, so it is very important to provide always a written reference of the message. This reference is used by people to review the message, share it with other people, or discuss doubts. In my opinion, the written reference is a must but there are other additional options such as video or audio recording. Documents support quick searches and readings.
Reiterate in the Message
Often the purpose of the message is to promote cultural values or to improve the workflow model as these are long-term challenges. These kinds of messages require constant communication because:
- The reiteration of the message eliminates the natural noises of communication. External factors that distort the message such as incorrect interpretation, unawareness, or ignoring communication channels.
- Influences decision-making by an unconscious reflex people.
- Reinforces the importance of the message.
Previous Communication With Middle Management
The middle management layer is fundamental to providing effective communications, so it is very important to be sure that they understand the message. The following are the reasons to have a previous communication with the management layer:
- They are the first point of contact for the engineers within the organization.
- They are responsible to support the team, resolving non-technical doubts, and achieving the goals.
- They are part of the circle of trust of the engineers.
- They can provide initial feedback and concerns regarding the messages and help to optimize communication.
- If they do not understand the message or even understand a wrong message, probably they will unconsciously generate a misalignment situation.
Obviously, there will be messages that the organization does not want to share previously with them, but there must be conscious decisions based on the purpose of the message or the situation context.
Effective communication in the organization has people aligned to achieve the goals, this means that the messages have to be understood, have to promote people's motivations, achieve commitment, and trigger actions. Of course, the output and goals must be measurable.
The important thing about communication is not the number of messages generated, but how many of them are effective. Non-effective communication means that you are probably making decisions with incorrect information.
Published at DZone with permission of Miguel Garcia. See the original article here.
Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.