How to Help an Overwhelmed Team

Apr 20, 2015
9 Min Read

Project failures, reduced productivity and stress can be linked directly to poor communication by leaders. Are you guilty of overwhelming your team with buzzwords, emails and texts? If so, it’s time to break your bad habits.

If you’re a leader and your team complains about being overwhelmed,  you’re not alone. We often blame technology – whether it’s the telephone 50 years ago or social media today – for much of our ills at work.  But the real problem may not be your team tweeting too much but rather your poor communication skills as a leader.

Think about it: How many times have you sent an email to a team member who is sitting in the same room? How many times have you avoided picking up the phone in favor of sending a text or an email? How many times have you sent emails that require more than three follow-up emails because the team seems to be confused?

If you’re guilty of any – or all – of these offenses, then it’s time you listened to Phil Simon, author of “Message Not Received: Why Business Communication is Broken and How to Fix It.

He says that while poor communication has always existed, the world is moving so fast these days that poor skills in this area will have bottom-line consequences and only grow worse unless leaders make a commitment to change their ways.

While “there’s no shortage of bad examples of emails out there,” Simon says the real problem is not email itself, but the people misusing it and often peppering it with jargon that no one clearly understands. He provides some examples:

“The next generation of cloud is about people. Their WaaS technology is the middleware to match the right person to the right work at the right time.”

“By plugging into the information ecosystem and participating through the creation and curation of information, organizations can augment existing information channels.”

Part of the problem, Simon explains, is that people like sending emails because it clears their plate of a task. By firing off an email with lots of jargon, a leader may feel like she is showing the team that she is supporting the company strategy. But as Peter Drucker notes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

So the leader who piles jargon-riddled emails onto her team may feel like she’s communicating, but the reality is she’s undermining the culture that is needed to keep teams focused and engaged. Without their buy-in, any business strategy will falter.

Ultimately, poor communication from a leader can lead to a team that feels overwhelmed, under-appreciated, confused – and possibly looking for another job. “The problem isn’t email,” Simon says. “It’s how we use it.”

So if leaders truly want to amend their bad habits and help their teams function at their best, Simon suggests they need to:

  • Give up the 50 cent words. You may think it makes you sound smart to use words like “architect” when “build” will work just as well (and be clearer), but an overwhelmed team will only find it even more stressful to try and decipher your language. For example, think about using “interactions” for “touchpoints” or “bottom line” for “net-net.” Remember, the more complicated the subject, the more critical it is for you to use simple language.
  • Look at your email threads. When you as a leader send out an email to your team, they will feel compelled to respond, even if they’re not really adding anything of value to the conversation. They view silence as deadly, because they believe it means they may be ignored by you. Email can foster internal competition that isn’t necessary or healthy. If you’ve got long email threads going, you’re overwhelming your team and it would be much faster and easier to set up a face-to-face meeting, online chat or conference call. Make it a rule that once an email goes over three messages, you pick up the phone.
  • Be open to learning. Perhaps you continue to use email as a way to collaborate because you simply don’t want to take the time to learn how to use online collaboration tools. But you and your team can work smarter—and feel less overwhelmed—by embracing new tools. “You don’t need six emails to schedule a conversation when you can use an online calendar to do the same thing and be much more efficient,” he says.
  • Ramp up efforts during projects. The Project Management Institute reports in a 2013 study that poor communication significantly increases the risk of project failure and often completely derails large projects. The report finds that $135 million is at risk for every $1 billion spent on a project. While Simon says that inefficiencies and misunderstandings related to communication can vary among organizations, some common problems include missed critical messages in overflowing email inboxes and key documents languishing in a team member’s hard drive.
  • Let employees find their zone. It’s often recommended by productivity experts that to be more productive workers should “chunk” their work. That means they need uninterrupted time to concentrate without being dinged constantly by emails or text messages from the boss. Can you give your team set periods to unplug from communications so they won’t feel so overwhelmed? Can you forbid emails after a certain time of day? “If it’s urgent, pick up the phone,” Simon says. 

Simon says it’s not always easy for leaders to break some of these habits. Part of the reason is because a full email inbox often helps them feel more important – even though they complain endlessly about it.

But Simon says the message to leaders is simple if they want to stop overwhelming their teams with poor communication: “It’s time to call bulls**t,” he says.  “It’s time to figure out what doesn’t make sense.”

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