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By Leslie Hildula

Empowering employees to improve your organization will require greater amounts of communication than you ever thought possible. It will ask that you not only increase the amount of time you personally spend giving and receiving information, but also that you improve your style and methods of communicating. In addition, the communications structure within your organization will need to change.

For example, you wish that your employees cared more about the well-being of the firm. You would like them to propose more solutions to problems instead of just complaining to you and waiting for you to fix them. Well, to do so, employees need access to the kind of information that makes you capable of problem-solving. What are the firm's resources and plans? What parameters are we working within that affect our problem solving? If all your employees know where the firm is going and what resources the firm has to get there, they too will be able to develop solutions that make sense.

If all this sounds time‹consuming; you're right, it is. But so are customer complaints and organizational conflicts. Companies practicing employee empowerment have found it well worth the investment of manager's time spent communicating with employees.

Companies committed to employee empowerment provide more information in greater detail than the average company. One firm, a film processing lab with 120 employees, posts charts that show financial results and sales trends per product line. The senior management meets monthly with employee groups to share business issues and answer questions. Every employee's compensation is partially affected by how well their particular product line performs in the marketplace.

A construction company, that also runs very profitable service and manufacturing operations, holds quarterly planning sessions. All employees are invited to a Saturday breakfast, unpaid but hosted by the company, where their department's performance is reviewed. Problems are discussed, successes celebrated, plans made, and full participation is encouraged in this process. All financial information is open to all employees, including wages. The owners feel that if an employee thinks they should be making as much as someone else, then that employee can freely discuss that with their manager. The management believes that if their compensation is fair and adequate, no apologies or secrets are necessary.

Another principle of employee empowerment that strongly affects communication channels within a company is the "twenty foot rule." This rule states that the best people to solve a problem are those people who work within twenty feet of the issue. So, if client reports are reaching your desk late or with errors, then the best approach to take is to bring employees together who are part of the process of preparing and delivering that report. That is, it's not an issue that management can solve alone. They lack valuable information that only the people with their hands on the process can provide. If we don't involve the people who actually do the work in the problem--solving process, then we won't reach the most effective solution or have the solution implemented smoothly without resistance. As Stephen Covey succinctly said, "No involvement, no commitment."

Employee empowerment relies upon effective coaching as managers help employees take on more responsibility. It requires that we ask more questions and listen well. We must first seek to understand issues from our co-workers and clients' perspectives before we jump to problem solving. This may require that we further educate ourselves and our employees in coaching techniques.

As leaders in organizational improvement, your co-workers will look to you to model the change. The demands upon your communication skills will increase. You'll be asked to model self‹assessment and continuous improvement‹to own up to your issues and needs.

Here are five specific suggestions to help you improve your interpersonal communication skills:

1. Use "I" statements instead of "you" statements. When you say, "Mary, I really needed that report on my desk," rather than "Mary, you didn't get that report to me again," you reduce defensiveness, increase cooperation, and speak with authority. "I" statements describe your experience instead of laying blame on the other person.

2. When discussing a problem, be specific and focus on the behavior. Instead of saying, "Bob, you're not a team player," say "Bob, I've noticed you have been late frequently to our planning meetings. I'm irritated and frustrated by the time wasted because the meeting can't start without you." Many conflicts in organizations result from vague language or expectations. When you describe specific behavior, the person now understands the problem and knows what you want changed.

3. Resolve conflicts early. Don't let conflicts fester. Research indicates 70% of a manager's time involves dealing with conflict. To reduce that amount, deal with them early. Also, ignoring conflicts means that they go underground, where, like toxic waste, they pollute the morale, motivation, and productivity of an organization.

4. Make sure you understand the message. Repeat, in your own words, what someone is trying to tell you. We often misunderstand, perhaps because of our own mental models of the situation or because the speaker is unclear. By taking time to ensure that you understood by paraphrasing what the speaker said, you will increase rapport and clarify any distortions.

5. Ask questions, especially when you are angry. When we are angry, we tend to jump to conclusions and try to win the argument. It means we may be trying to solve a problem with insufficient data. Stay calm, breathe, and ask questions. You can often solve the problem without escalating the conflict. You'll feel better, too, and your relationships will be stronger.

Changing style and methods of communication can often feel awkward. We learned our skills when we were very young in our families and from our early bosses. And, unless your family and early work experiences were exceptional, there are probably still things you can learn about communicating better. Doing so will help improve your co-worker's effectiveness, your company's profitability, and your personal well-being. *

Leslie Hildula is a consultant with The Babicky Consulting Group.

Reprinted by permission of the Oregon Certified Public Accountant, Copyright 1995

Michael Goldstein, CPA
The CPA Journal


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