How to Improve Communication at Work

Wells Fargo paid $3 billion to federal prosecutors because of a fourteen-year failure of communication. That bank’s management communicated information in a condescending, emotionally laced, and unnecessary way. That created a culture where employees did not speak with transparency. 

In the Wells Fargo scandal, the bank’s senior administrators urged its lowest level employees to meet sales goals that executives knew were impossible. For example, in a location with 11,500 potential customers and 11 other banks, the employee’s quotas were 3,000 new accounts annually and 12,000 daily solutions. When workers warned management that these goals were impossible without fraud, managers forced them to do it anyway. 

If an employee failed to make sales goals, managers said the employee would be “transferred to a store where someone had been shot and killed” or “forced to walk out in the hot sun around the block.’” It led to those employees opening millions of accounts without customer’s permission and signing unaware customers for credit cards. This fraud required the Wells Fargo IT department to develop millions of phony email addresses where the “customers” would send and receive information about their fake accounts. Wells Fargo employees reported that being at war in Iraq was less stressful than working at Wells Fargo. 

When the government revealed this fraud, the corporate response was consistent with its abysmal internal communication. The bank failed to take any responsibility. Leadership blamed, then fired, 5,300 low-level employees for being “rogue.” The CEO sold $61 million of his Wells Fargo stock the month before the investigation began.

This scandal would not occur with good communication. The senior managers at Wells Fargo have now learned what it takes to become good communicators. It takes professional skill, practice, commitment, and consistency. You can learn these same communication skills so that you can avoid communication mistakes at your company. 

Research shows that communication is a top skill for employees

  • Communication issues have profound business implications, including loss of business (31%), low staff morale (61%), confusion for the company’s customers (60%). 
  • Large companies each lose, on average, $62.5 million annually due to inadequate communication
  • 28% of workers describe poor communication as the leading cause of failing to produce a project in its initial time frame. 
  • Over 60% of employers report that candidates fail to demonstrate adequate communication skills to be considered for positions 
  • 57% of recruiters say communications skills will increase in demand over the next five years

Communication starts with listening, not talking 

Active listening is one of the most misunderstood tactics in the workplace. Listening is not just staying quiet while someone else is speaking. It is listening so that you can move the conversation forward. Show that you are actively listening by repeating what you heard the person say in a paraphrase or repeating the last three words that the person said. That way, the speaker understands that you have listened to her. 

BLUF your delivery (Bottom Line Up Front)

Put your most important details up front. For example, if you’ve been asked a yes or no question, the first words out of your mouth must be “yes” or “no.” Then explain your answer. If you have a question in your email, then your first sentence should be the question. Present your need for the question in the next sentence. Using the “bottom line up front” communication method will make your ideas more evident to others. 

Get face-to-face

It is essential to spend time with someone else. By exchanging information personally, decoding body language, listening carefully to inflection, and seeing other nonverbal signals, you get a fuller understanding than any electronic method offers. If you need to explore a complicated problem with a coworker, communicate in a more refined way, or otherwise get deep, talk to them personally. 

Email, chat, and text manners

Emails are best used to send files. They are awful for dialogue. Remember that emails are not intended to substitute conversation. When the emails begin to look like a conversation, be the first to pick up the phone or meet them in person.  

If it’s an emergency, don’t email. Instead, pick up the phone or go physically talk to the person. Anything that demands a reply in fewer than three hours should not involve email. Expecting an emailed answer at that time creates a toxic place where email is the emergency response system. 

Don’t automatically reply to all. Only include people who need to know or whom you expect a response. 

Finally, check your email on your own time. Compulsively checking your email will push you down a hole where your productivity ceases to exist. If you are concerned that people will expect an instant response, use your out of office automatic responders to say that you are monitoring email twice a day (list the times). Tell them that if it is an emergency, please call your direct phone number.  

Seek and destroy workplace bullying 

Just hiring superstars is 50% less valuable than removing bad actors in the workplace. So when you see someone violating company culture, raise your concerns to management. Bullying represents a destructive behavior that kills innovation and competitiveness. 

Speak like a boss 

Leaders usually don’t talk like employees. They speak clearly, with confidence, and they are authentic. To sound like a boss when you talk, use these methods. 

  1. Drop your filler words, including “um” and “er.” Using unnecessary words weakens your credibility. Those terms include “I think,” “you know,” “like,” “frankly,” “to be honest.” Don’t end your sentences with “and whatnot,” “things like that,” or “you know what I’m saying.” These crutches wreak havoc on our persuasion skills. But many of us don’t realize that we use these filler words. Record yourself a minute or two on any topic with your phone. Then, listen back and count how many of these crutches you use.   
  2. Get comfortable with silence. Don’t speak unless you have something to say that is important. If you made a good point, let silence fill the room to emphasize it. People often make excellent points, but they continue talking to the point where they talk themselves into a corner and don’t know how to end it. 
  3. Keep going when you mess up. Don’t stop and apologize if you say something that you didn’t intend. Most people don’t even notice. By stopping and apologizing, you draw unnecessary attention to it.
  4. One thought per sentence. When you isolate one concept per sentence, your need for filler “ums” will reduce. It will clean up your presentation by using only words that are important to your point. 
  5. Don’t be overly submissive. An example includes saying “I’m sorry” in trivial situations. Reserve your apologies for when they matter. Instead of saying, “I’m sorry to be late,” say “thanks for your patience.” Instead of “No problem” or “No worries,” say “I’d be pleased to,” “Certainly,” or “You’re welcome.” Don’t use phrases like “kind of” or “right?” at the end of your sentences. 
  6. Speak Loud. Stand up straight and speak from your diaphragm. If you have a loud personality, lower your voice to drive home a message. If you’re quiet, enunciate and speak up.

Apologize when you’ve done wrong 

If you’ve done something that caused hurt, then you should apologize, even if it was unintentional. Apologizing opens up conversation, allowing you to reconnect with the person. There are six elements to a sufficient apology. First, express regret. Second, explain what went wrong. Third, acknowledge responsibility. Fourth, declare repentance. Fifth, offer repair. Sixth, request forgiveness. 

The most crucial element of those six elements is to accept responsibility. Acknowledge that you made a mistake and make it clear that you’re at fault. Never apologize for someone else’s feelings. Don’t ever say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” That’s not an apology. It’s an accusation. A real apology must focus on your behavior. You must remain authentic in your apology for it to be adequate to repair the relationship. 

Praise others for their work 

The best way to say “thank you” is to be concise, specific, and, most of all, genuine and authentic. There are four main components of a useful thank you at work. 

  • Don’t wait. If you wait too long, it lowers the impact of the praise. 
  • Be specific. Tell the employee how she did a good job. She will appreciate the gesture, and she will most likely repeat the particular action that you praised. What gets rewarded gets repeated. 
  • Be genuine. Don’t praise for the sake of praising alone. People will see through it. And let the praise stand alone. Don’t give criticism at the same time. Save that for a later coaching session. 
  • Look for reasons to praise. There are likely employees that you will need to work hard to find reasons for praise. Your encouragement may be all a lousy performer needs to turn the corner.

Have a sense of humor

One of the great ironies of life is we don’t take overly serious people seriously. So let your guard down. Be vulnerable. Try to make people laugh.


Communicating is simple. But it’s not easy. Great leaders are deliberate in their communication. They don’t leave language to their unconscious. Instead, they meticulously craft their messages so that their intended communication is heard. If you implement these ideas, you will be well on your way to better workplace communication. 

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