UPfront Talk at work

It’s not what you say, but the way that you say it – and the most effective managers are those who can employ wide range of communication styles.

That’s one of conclusions emerging from six-year study of workplace talk that involved recording and studying wide range of interactions in number of different organisations. Carried out as part of Victoria University’s Language in the Workplace Project led by Janet Holmes, they are summarised in just-published book, Power and Politeness in the Workplace.

The project was partly inspired by the fairly prescriptive recipes for effective communication in some management literature, explains Maria Stubbe, research fellow on the project.

“These seemed incompatible with the increased emphasis on coaching and mentoring and with what we know about communications. We wanted to find what effective people actually did, so the language study was complemented by 360-degree feedback.

“What we found was that the most effective people used whole lot of different communication strategies.

“These included ‘doing power’ – being decisive and deliberate – to using humour, politeness, or taking consultative approach. They had the widest communicative repertoire and were quite strategic and adaptable in how they used it.”

Another aspect of work communication emerging from the study is the role of small talk and humour. “The focus tends to be on communication in terms of getting tasks done or conveying information but we discovered the importance of small talk,” says Stubbe. “Humour and gossip tended to be interwoven through discussions, often serving to defuse tension – the making of controversial decision, for instance, was often followed by flurry of jokey remarks. Small talk is also an important aspect of relationship building.”

She says an important part of the research was that findings were fed back into the workplaces via discussion which also highlighted which research areas were of most interest to the organisations. This showed that specific needs varied from team to team and workplace to workplace depending on factors such as ethnicity, organisational culture, and gender.

Women are generally better at the relationship building side of talk and men at the more decisive communication styles. Both have their place and are more effective in some environments, less so in others, says Stubbe.

“So it helps to be able to dip into styles across that continuum as well. It comes down to people needing to be reflective and observant about communications and be flexible as to their own styles.

“Some people seem to do it intuitively or naturally but it’s real skill so there’s no reason why it can’t be learned.”

For more information on the project and book visit www.vuw.ac.nz/lals/lwp

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