Improving Communication - Principles of Management

Now that we understand some sources of noise that lead to distortions and misinterpretations in communication it is time to look at what managers can do to improve communication and limit noise. Communication can be improved (and noise reduced) if managers match media to messages; take steps to reduce information overload; think about how best to get messages across; engage in active listening when decoding incoming messages; proactively use the grapevine to gather and disseminate information; engage in direct communication with employees; and design workspaces to facilitate communication.


We have already discussed the importance of matching media to messages. As illustrated in Figure above, lean media work well when the message to be communicated is routine and clear because the sender and receiver have common expectations through shared mental models.

Ambiguous and nonroutine situations require rich media because the parties must share more information with immediate feedback to resolve multiple and conflicting interpretations of their observations and experiences. Put differently, ambiguous and nonroutine situations enhance the chances of noise. Limiting this noise requires the use of rich media.


Matching media to messages can also help reduce information overload. Rich media are information-intensive, and heavy use of rich media can exacerbate information overload. If managers use lean media in routine nonambiguous circumstances, this can reduce the total volume of information flowing through a communication system and hence cut information overload. Managers should also be careful not to communicate too much trivial routine information. They must use their judgment to focus on communicating only what is important.

Beyond this, three strategies can help receivers manage information overload: buffering, omitting, and summarizing. 50 Consider Bill Gates at Microsoft. Gates receives approximately 300 e-mail messages daily from Microsoft addresses that are outside a core group of people; these messages are buffered—routed to an assistant who reads each and sends Gates only the 30 or so messages considered essential reading.

Gates also applies the omitting strategy by using software rules to redirect e-mails from distribution lists, nonessential sources, and junk mail (spam). These messages are dumped into preassigned folders to be read later, if ever.

Gates likely also relies on the summarizing strategy by reading executive summaries rather than entire reports on some issues.


As noted early, effective communication occurs when the other person receives and understands the message. To accomplish this difficult task, the sender must learn to empathize with the receiver, repeat the message, choose an appropriate time for the conversation, and be descriptive rather than evaluative.

Empathy refers to a person’s ability to understand and be sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and situation of others. Empathizing with the receiver involves putting yourself in the receiver’s shoes when encoding the message. For instance, be sensitive to words that may be ambiguous or trigger the wrong emotional response.

It is also important to rephrase key points a few times. The saying “Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you’ve told them!” reflects this need for redundancy. Redundancy is important because it emphasizes and drives home the critical message.

Many leaders have learned the importance of repeating their core message, and will do this repeatedly until it sinks in. For example, we discussed how the CEO of Continental Airlines, Gordon Bethune, in his communication constantly repeated the need for the airline to “make reliability a reality.” This was his core message to employees, and he communicated it relentlessly.

Choosing an appropriate time to deliver your message is important because the receiver is more likely to listen at some times than others. Your message has to compete with other messages and with noise, so it is important to find a time when the receiver is less likely to be distracted. Finally, it is important to be descriptive—to focus on the problem, not the person, when you have negative information to convey. People stop listening when information attacks their self-esteem. Suggest things the receiver can do to improve, rather than point to him or her as a problem.


There is an old saying: “Nature gave people two ears but only one tongue, which is a gentle hint that they should listen more than they talk.” To follow this advice, we need to recognize that listening is a process of actively sensing the sender’s signals, evaluating them accurately, and responding appropriately. These three components of listening—sensing, evaluating, and responding—reflect the listener’s side of the communication model described at the beginning.

Active listeners receive the sender’s signals, decode them as intended, and provide appropriate and timely feedback to the sender (see Figure below). Active listeners constantly cycle through sensing, evaluating, and responding during the conversation and engage in various activities to improve these processes. Most people are actually poor listeners who fail to retain or understand much of what they hear.

Poor listeners frequently interrupt others, jump to conclusions about what people will say before they have said it, hurry speakers along, don’t pay attention to what people are saying, and often let their perceptual biases shape the way they process information. In contrast, active listeners are better able to keep their perceptual biases in check. Sensing Sensing is the process of receiving signals from a sender and paying attention to them.

These signals include the words spoken, the nature of the sounds (speed of speech, tone of voice, and so on), and nonverbal cues. Active listeners improve sensing by postponing evaluation, avoiding interruptions, and maintaining interest. Postponing evaluation is important to avoid becoming a victim of first impressions and stereotyping. Active listeners try to stay as open-minded as possible by delaying evaluation of the message until the speaker has finished.

Avoiding interruptions matters because interrupting a speaker in midstream can have two negative effects. First, it disrupts the speaker’s idea, so the listener does not receive the entire message. Second, interruptions tend to second-guess what the speaker is trying to say, which contributes to the problem of evaluating the speaker’s ideas too early. Maintaining interest is important because active listening requires conscious engagement.

Too often we close our minds soon after a conversation begins because the subject is boring. Instead active listeners maintain interest by taking the view— probably an accurate one—that there is always something of value in a conversation; it’s just a matter of actively looking for it.

Active Listening

Active Listening

Evaluating The evaluating component of listening includes understanding a message’s meaning, evaluating the message, and remembering it. To improve their evaluation of the conversation, active listeners empathize with the speaker and organize information received during the conversation. Active listeners try to understand and remain sensitive to the speaker’s feelings, thoughts, and situation.

Such empathy is a crucial skill in active listening because it helps the listener interpret accurately the verbal and nonverbal cues in a conversation from the other person’s point of view. As for organizing information, it is worth noting that human beings can, on average, process information three times faster than the average rate of speech (450 words per minute versus 125 words per minute), so they are easily distracted.

Active listeners use this spare brainpower to organize the information into key points. In fact, it’s a good idea to imagine that you must summarize what people have said after they are finished speaking. This can make you a better active listener.

Responding Responding, the third component of listening, gives feedback to the sender, which motivates and directs the speaker’s communication. Active listeners do this by showing interest and clarifying the message. Active listeners show interest by maintaining sufficient eye contact and sending backchannel signals such as “Oh, really!” and “I see” during appropriate breaks in the conversation. To clarify the message, active listeners provide feedback by rephrasing the speaker’s ideas at appropriate breaks (“So you’re saying that . . . ?”).

This further demonstrates interest in the conversation and helps the speaker determine whether the listener understands the message.


Earlier we discussed how important personal networks are for communicating information within an organization. Information can flow very quickly through the grapevine. We noted that rather than trying to shut down the grapevine, managers shoulduse it as a source of information about what concerns people.

Skilled managers build personal networks that give them information that cannot be obtained through formal communication channels. They use these networks to tap into the grapevine and learn what is going on, and to see whether critical information is being filtered out of formal communication systems.

By quick action, such as releasing clarifying information through formal channels, managers can forestall the spread of inaccurate rumors through the grapevine. Moreover, managers can use the grapevine to test ideas. For example, they may propose an idea for consideration (often called a “trial balloon”) and then listen to the grapevine for feedback about the idea.

Politicians do this often—either hinting that they are thinking about a policy or releasing information through an “unnamed source” and then gauging the response before deciding whether to commit themselves formally to the policy. Similarly, there is evidence that managers and investment bankers sometimes plant rumors that two companies are engaged in merger talks to see how the market will respond.


Skilled managers recognize the importance of nontraditional channels that enable them to communicate directly with employees. They get out of their offices and interact with employees lower down in the organization. Nearly 40 years ago people at Hewlett-Packard coined a phrase for this communication strategy: management by walking around . Herb Kelleher, the founder and longtime CEO of Southwest Airlines, practiced this communication strategy.

He could frequently be found on Southwest flights, talking to flight attendants or the pilots and helping to hand out refreshments to customers. Similarly, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton would often drop in on his stores unannounced, engaging employees in conversations about the business. This strategy is an effective way of counteracting filtering, and it can teach the manager things that might not be transmitted upward through formal channels.

One recent trend, popularized initially by politicians, has been for executives to directly communicate with employees via “town hall meetings.” In these meetings large groups of employees hear about a merger or other special news directly from the key decision makers. An important element of a town hall meeting is that executives open the meeting to questions and respond on the spot to issues raised.

Other executives attend employee roundtable forums to hear opinions from a small representation of staff about various issues. All of these direct communication strategies potentially minimize filtering because executives listen directly to employees. They also help executives acquire a deeper meaning and quicker understanding of internal organizational problems. A third benefit of direct communication is that employees might have more empathy for decisions made further up the corporate hierarchy.


The ability and motivation to communicate is to some extent influenced by the physical space in which employees work. The location and design of hallways, offices, cubicles, and communal areas (such as cafeterias and elevators) all shape whom we speak to as well as the frequency of that communication. Pixar Animation Studios designed its campus near Fielding Questions President Bush answers unscripted questions from the audience about his strategy for winning the war of terror at a town hall meeting held in early 2006.

Through town hall meetings like this leaders can learn about concerns that might be filtered out through formal communication channels. San Francisco, California, to let employees share knowledge through chance interactions with people on other teams. Pixar executives call this the “bathroom effect” because team members must leave their isolated pods to fetch their mail, have lunch, or visit the restroom. “It promotes that chance encounter,” says Pixar creative director John Lasseter. “You run into people constantly. It worked from the minute we arrived. We just blossomed here.”

Another increasingly popular workspace strategy is to replace traditional offices with open space arrangements in which all employees (including managers) work in the same open area. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people communicate more often with fewer walls between them. However, research also suggests that open office design potentially increases employee stress due to the loss of privacy and personal space.

According to an analysis of 13,000 employee surveys in 40 major organizations, the most important function of workspace is to provide a place to concentrate on work without distraction. The second most important function is to support informal communication with coworkers. In other words, workspace design needs to balance privacy with opportunities for social interaction.

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