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February 1, 2004
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Managerial communication.

In all the years I have spent in the surveying/ engineering business I cannot recall hearing the term "communication" used many times in reference to the management of a surveying or engineering firm. I've heard the terms profit, employee skills, project management, training, contracting"¦ but not the term communication. Most company owners assume that communication means talking. But there is so much more to this word.

To understand the real meaning of communication is to understand that the work of a company is accomplished through others. Communication can also be understood through the tools used to implement items such as business plans, employee job descriptions, progress reports and employee evaluations. In any company, large or small, there are two types of communication: internal and external. For this column I will discuss internal communication; I will cover external in a future column.

Understanding Communication

Webster's Dictionary de-fines communication as the "sending, giving or exchanging of information, ideas, etc." The word communication comes from the Latin root word meaning "to make common." Isn't making common the knowledge of ideas what we want to accomplish? On the surface this may seem simple enough, but good communication within a company is much more complex. Below are some tips to aid company managers in developing their firms into more efficient and well-managed ones.

Communication is a Transaction
Each person communicating is both a sender and a receiver simultaneously. Each bit of information that a sender releases is retrieved by another sender, making the sender a receiver as well. One problem in communication is not hearing the information returning to the receiver, that is, being a poor listener. This happens every day in the business world. Often, a manager giving instruction fails to hear the response from an employee. After the manager gives the employee the instructions, the employee should be given a final opportunity to determine if he or she understands the duties requested. This also results in team building within the company.

Communication Is a Process
Changes in events and relationships are part of a continuous flow of information and make communication between managers and employees an ever-changing process. The instructions given to employees last year may no longer be relevant to the job they are currently performing. An example is state or national standards dealing with survey plats. For instance, if an employee is performing ALTA surveys, it is an excellent idea for the company owner or supervisor to spend time with the employee responsible for checking the final plats. The supervisor and the employee can then read through the ALTA standards together to make sure each section of the standards is clearly understood.

Communication is Sharing Common Meanings
In a perfect world, words would mean the same to us all, but because of social status, educational background and geographic location, words do not always mean the same thing to all people. Factor in people who speak English as a second language and a greater challenge of understanding exists. The playwright George Bernard Shaw reputedly remarked, "Great Britain and America are two countries separated by the same language." Given this fact, it is surprising to me that we rarely hear about communication problems in our industry. Throw in the technical language of surveying and engineering that seems to change almost weekly, and some of the problems in managing a company become evident.

Communication Can Include Hidden Agendas
Hidden agendas in communication occur when people purposely say one thing but mean something else. Sometimes this behavior is used to show superiority over others or to degrade other employees. This behavior needs to be recognized and stopped before it has a negative effect on company management.

Dealing with Difficult Employees

Practice Good Communication Skills Before Attacking Others
Company owners and managers should provide a supportive, non-competitive climate in which employees can do their work and develop their skills. They should not hunt for a scapegoat for each problem that arises. Small problems are a normal part of the workplace. Every manager and owner must learn to roll with the punches and stop wishing that difficult individuals were different. For the most part, chronic behavior patterns will not change. Supervisors will benefit from adjusting their own communication skills to deal with difficult employees. They can provide rules for behavior during a meeting. It doesn't help to placate the troublemaker by laughing off offensive remarks or to allow yourself to be goaded into a reciprocal pattern. Also, supervisors shouldn't provide a soapbox for difficult employees by allowing poor behavior. Difficult employees should be confronted directly (although not in public but with at least one witness present) and specific rules should be set regarding the expectations for behavior. The meeting should be documented and placed in the employee's file. If all else fails, the employee should be dismissed.

Conduct Regular Employee Evaluations
An annual meeting between the supervisor or manager and his or her employee is a popular policy in American companies. If used properly, it is an excellent tool. The idea is that both parties get to share ideas about the job performance of the employee. If used improperly, sessions can undo all the good supervisor-employee relationships that have developed over the last year. However, many of these interviews are performed by managers who are poorly prepared or lack the communication skills to properly relate to the employee's job performance. Most employees appreciate input from managers as long as it is constructive and non-threatening. The manager's role should not be judgmental in matters beyond the workplace. Remember that communication in business settings, as in employee evaluations, means talking with them not to them.

Remember, life is more than what we say, it is how we say-communicate-it.

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