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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Clear Communication: a Key to Unlock Improved Performance

By Laurie Breitner

Would you be surprised to learn that a common cause of workplace dysfunction is lack of clearly defined roles and expectations? Ambiguity can cause a multitude of problems - owner frustration, poor employee performance, duplication of effort or omission of critical functions. Many times, by simply gaining agreement on roles and responsibilities, organizations operate more effectively. When expectations are clear, everyone works more harmoniously and productively.

Effective communication begins with an organization chart. A thoughtfully composed chart that accurately reflects all of an company's functions clarifies reporting relationships, establishes high-level roles and responsibilities and better informs employees, customers, colleagues and vendors about who does what.

An organization chart is especially useful to:

  • Understand and acknowledge all business functions
  • Train new staff
  • Inform customers, suppliers and staff of any new or changed roles, especially during times of significant transition

In the early years of a business, often there are few if any employees and everyone does whatever needs doing to survive. There is little
recognition of time spent on the "hidden" functions like marketing, HR, and financial management. As companies grow, either those extra duties take an increasing amount of someone's time or they get too little attention and are assigned only when deadlines loom.

By stepping back and acknowledging all of a company's necessary functions, owners can chose do, assign or outsource these critical roles. Planning for all functions is especially important as founders contemplate stepping aside. Successors need to understand and prepare for all the duties of their new roles. Creating an organization chart with all the functions clearly spelled out and assigned is a great first step.

Job descriptions clarify responsibilities, priorities and expectations

Once all functions are clear, they need to be defined in more detail and performance expectations set. Job descriptions help companies:

  • Establish specific roles, responsibilities and the soft-skill competencies necessary to succeed in the role
  • Systematize the entire hiring process from employment ads and/or internal posting through selecting and orienting new employees
  • Communicate the company's career path
  • Identify skill gaps to arrange needed training
  • Form the basis for formal employee evaluations

To be valuable, review job descriptions annually to ensure that they are up-to-date and make and needed changes. Here a list of things to get started:

  • Describe the position, not the person.
  • If formal job descriptions are new to your organization, get buy in from current staff.
  • Include a position overview, main challenges, and essential functions with behavior-based, specific duties, as well as technical skills educational and physical requirements and company values.
  • Plan ahead! Think about your long-term needs.

Hiring and retaining the right staff is essential for business success. It's critical to think carefully about your company's culture and values and include them in job descriptions. For example, if your company relies on teamwork or values employee participation in decision making, this should be clearly stated.

Formal performance evaluation is an opportunity to share and receive employee feedback. Job descriptions will carry little weight without a process to assess whether employees and owners are meeting expectations. The adage that you have to inspect what you expect is true. A formal evaluation process is a two-way street; this is an opportunity to examine the behavior of both the employee and the owner - to make sure expectations are met on both sides. Evaluations offer a chance to:

  • Give unambiguous feedback on performance that serves as the basis for both positive and adverse employee actions
  • Officially praise and thank employees for their contributions
  • Learn what motivates the employee and discover her/his career aspirations
  • Reflect on needed training, tools or other improvement

Here are some hints to make this process work for your organization:

  • Ideally employees should have both a formal job description and a list of the evaluation criteria that will be used a full year before an annual evaluation.
  • Use job descriptions to develop checklists of observable behaviors that "test" whether the employee is meeting expectations.
  • Schedule the face-to-face meeting in a quiet, private place at both parties convenience.
  • Avoid "false precision" of assigning numerical grades, if that can be avoided in your organization.
  • Discuss observable behavior.
  • If emotions rise, take a break and, if necessary, involve a third party.

Time spent ensuring clear communication of expectations and evaluating results will pay long-term dividends in employee and owner
satisfaction.

Laurie founded Breitner & Associates in 1991 to help organizations work more effectively and successfully. Clients benefit from her unique ability to bridge the gap between long-term, strategic planning and implementing tactical solutions to solve complex business problems. Laurie Breitner helps businesses on the road to success through strategic planning, organizational development, project management, operational improvement and technical and process documentation.

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