How to Fix Your Workplace’s Communication Problem

How to Fix Your Workplace’s Communication Problem

Communication is key in many areas of life, most chiefly the workplace. An office of clashing employees not only makes for unpleasant feelings amongst the employees, but can impact the overall effectiveness and productivity of our employees. But what are some tricks of the conflict resolution trade that can smooth the path to a calm and productive workforce? Laura MacLeod, licensed social worker and creator of the From the Inside Out Project joins us to discuss the most challenging and nuanced aspect of any job – people. Learn simple ways to improve interactions between employees, reduce conflict in your workplace, and know when it’s necessary for a manager to jump in and fix an issue versus when it’s best to let an issue resolve itself.

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MP3 File | Run Time: 32:03

Brandon: Welcome to the HR for Small Business podcast, this is your host Brandon Laws. Thank you for the download and thanks for listening today. Today I have Laura McLeod with me, she is a licensed social worker and she’s also the creator of the From The Inside Out Project. Laura combines two decades as a union employee with her social work and graduate level teaching skills to lead a remarkably effective technique of improving staff communication. Welcome, Laura! Appreciate you being on the podcast.

Laura: Thanks Brandon, great to be here!

Brandon: Today I really wanted to focus on communication in the workplace, and I know the From the Inside Out project really focuses on getting people to communicate, so could you just tell listeners and me, just kind of educate us on what is this From the Inside Out Project?

s200_laura.macleodLaura: Well what I have done is I have taken literally all of my experience and put it all together. So, I am a licensed social worker, but that was something I did a little bit later in life. I came to New York originally to be an actress, and as I am sure many of you know, actresses are also waitresses and bartenders and all kind of things like that. So I had a very nice career as an actress, but in the meantime, between jobs, I did a lot of work in the hospitality industry and in the hotel industry, and that’s where I got my 20+ years as an hourly employee. And when I went back to school to get my social work degree, I studied group work.

Group work is essentially working with small groups of people over a particular issue. It can be something like the support group for grief and loss, it can be a meeting, it can be a staff training, anything where a group of people is together and someone is leading it. And this was what I enjoyed about social work and this is what drew me to the work – this idea of facilitating groups of people working out problems and issues and supporting each other. And when I went back to my hotel job, I thought, this could be useful here. Because what I saw, and I am sure you and other viewers have had this issue in any job that you’ve had, we all have issues with co-workers, supervisors, people. People are different and they have problems small and large. And what was happening, what I saw in my work as an hourly employee, was that we weren’t doing well. Meaning we as a group of bartenders or restaurant employees weren’t doing our best at serving the people, and it wasn’t because we didn’t know how or because we were lazy or anything like that. It was because there were internal issues that were stopping us. There were grudges, there were slights, there were unresolved things going on, and I watched management be very frustrated with this. They brought in consultants, they did trainings, and they tried to work things out, and nothing worked because they focused on job training.

So I thought, what if you focus on the people and what the devil is going on here and help them resolve conflict, resolve their problems, so they get along better – that, I would think, would translate into a better attitude and thus better performance.

So that’s essentially the concept. And I first went into a hotel and I worked with bar staff, I worked with restaurant staff, housekeeping, and I have done this with management and hourly employees. Because in my mind, it’s all connected, and the point is oftentimes there were things going on with employees – communication, problem solving, conflicts – that no one is addressing because either HR people or managers or whoever don’t have the time or the skillset. They are not social workers, they are not psychiatrists. And again, I want to backtrack there, this isn’t therapy, it isn’t about that. It’s about figuring out what the problem is and then going at it in a way that makes sense. Does that make sense?

Brandon-iconBrandon: Yeah, absolutely. I was looking at your website a little bit, and you had a quote on there. Hopefully I don’t butcher it too badly, but you said, “The work component of any job is the easy part, where the people part is actually the most challenging aspect of the job”, and I think you laid the groundwork there pretty nice in your description and the work that you are doing. Most people, most managers and leaders, are training for the job itself but not interpersonal communication. So just talk a little bit about that, why you make the people side is so much more challenging and what people can really do about it.

Laura: I love that you picked up that quote because that really summarizes the whole thing, and you are absolutely right. Let me start my answer to your question by giving you a couple of examples of bad communication. Well, let’s not say bad, that’s too general a word, but where there is miscommunication or where communication issues and problems are directly affecting the work. I have a couple that come to mind.

One is, I worked with a 5-star restaurant and the restaurant staff was in such chaos. I mean internal chaos where there was all kind of unresolved problems with them such that they were arguing over who is going to cut the lemons. It really sounds hysterical and funny and silly, but things can get so deep and people get so angry and so unable to resolve things. And in this case there are many factors and I think they are relevant in all workplaces. You’ve got cultural, you’ve got language – sometimes there is an issue there. There is just people’s inability in general to really confront things head on. It’s not easy.

So you’ve got a 5-star restaurant and you are sitting there, you’ve spent $500 on lunch with your colleague or client, and you can’t get a tea with lemon because nobody is cutting the lemons back there. So that’s an extreme. Many other examples include where employees will be arguing over maybe what one would consider more important things. I think we’ve all had this experience where you’re working in some kind of a team, you’re working on a project together, and somebody is just not pulling their weight. Somebody is always late for the meetings. “Oh I didn’t have my material ready, I had things to do” or whatever. And this is a problem, nobody quite wants to say, Listen, hey, what the devil is going on here? You are not pulling your weight. Nobody wants to be that person, so then maybe some resentment grows, maybe there is a passive aggressive thing going on. Maybe this person gets ignored or you pick up the work for him or her, and that’s not good because the work gets done but the resentment builds. And at the end of the day, the bottom line is that if there’s a conflict, if there’s a problem, sweeping it under the rug is just under the rug. It’s still keeps coming out later. So I think that’s an important thing to remember.

Brandon: Do you think that in those communication issues that do pop up, do you think there’s awareness around those sorts of things, you know where they are sweeping it under the rug on purpose? Or do you think it’s sort of accidental, like they really just have no awareness and there’s a barrier in communication with team members?

Laura: Well, do you mean they as in a manager or supervisor?

Brandon: I really mean the employees, because if at the employee level they’re having conflicts and they don’t really understand how to deal with it, maybe they still don’t understand that there is an issue. Whereas managers may be at higher level and can observe and see if there are issues and maybe that’s where they bring in somebody like you to really help to facilitate the communication problems.

Laura: I think yes, you are absolutely right.  A lot of times the people, the employees themselves, are not really aware. So, for example, I had an issue with one group of employees where someone was very negative on a regular basis. You know those people, nothing is ever good enough, nothing is ever right, and they really bring you down, it’s really tough. Oftentimes those people have no clue, they don’t know that they are being really negative, that they are poorly affecting people, and nobody wants to tell them. So there’s a lack of awareness there. The guy who was not pulling his weight, if you don’t confront him, he thinks everything is okay. And the people around know there is a problem, they know something is not great. Jane is really negative, and that drives me crazy, they don’t have any clue, really, as to what to do about that. And that’s where the idea of my work comes in, because managers can see that. Maybe they don’t see the exact thing, but they are seeing that, Oh, this group of employees or staff is not working well together, and this seems to be the problem. But it’s also a little tough for them to get in there and dig it out because they don’t have the skillset and because  they are the mangers, so you’re not really going to say, Well I don’t like this one and that one because then how are you going to look?

Brandon: Talk to us about your union experience. I imagine you saw a lot of conflict and communication issues in general. What are some of the biggest lessons learned from all of your experience in dealing with conflict between either managers and employees or employees and employees, and learning how to break down barriers to communication and get people actually working together?

Laura: Great question. I guess the most basic thing I could say about that in my experience and what I have seen is when something that starts out small is not addressed, and it escalates and it becomes huge. And at the end of the day, we are all in the HR office with the union delegate and the union business agent and it’s a contractual issue when it started out as something that probably could have been resolved had we sat down and gone through the facts and spoken about it. Sometimes I think for five minutes, literally.

People get so emotional and I understand that, I understand these things. Getting emotional in job situations over something we feel passionately about, or feeling like we haven’t been heard, I think that’s part of it sometimes. I do believe there are many small things that management and organizations can do to start on the road to following up and creating a culture where you can solve these things in 5 to 10 minutes. Or maybe not solve, but you can hear people and be clear on the expectations.

One thing is a check-in. In my groups I do a check in at the start of the meeting. You say your name and the sentence “I feel _” and then fill in the blank with one word. And you can’t use good or bad because that’s too general, but you can use anything else. A check in at the start of the shift is a very effective way to get a reading on what’s going on. You might say, My name is Laura, and I am really exhausted today, I was up all night with my baby, my baby was crying, and so I am feeling kind of tired today. Okay, so now we know that, alright! So let’s figure out, then, hey Laura is a little tired today, she might not be totally on target, so let’s try to help her out here. So the next time, I am the one helping you out, or whomever else. It’s a way to create a culture where people are supporting each other.

Brandon: They’re comfortable with each other, they know how to talk to each other.

photo-1428515613728-6b4607e44363Laura: Exactly, exactly. And that is missing from many organizations because people are taken in and they are trained in the job but then something happens, and they don’t quite know where to go with it.

I think the other thing that I would say about the unions in these big escalating problems is, it’s the other thing that I work on, the question “where do you go to resolve a problem?” This is what I also saw as a mess in the union work that I did: people running to HR or the union or both over things that in fact were personal problems. And neither HR or the union was in a position to assist with it. People were going to HR and saying, I’m a bus boy, and I don’t like how the waiters are speaking to me, they are not respectful and they are not tipping me. Now, HR is not going to get involved in that. That’s a personal thing, you know, you’ve got to have the conversation about, I don’t like how you are treating me, I do hard work and but that’s not an easy conversation

Brandon: It’s interesting because it really sounds like the root cause to a lot of these communication issues is that the leaders of the company, the managers, really haven’t made it safe for the employees to feel like they can talk with one another. Maybe they need more time to get to know each other to be able to break down the barriers, so they know where each other are coming from and have empathy to see other point of views when somebody comes and says, Hey, I don’t like the way you are treating me. Do you think that’s the root cause or do you think there’s something bigger at play with most communication issues?

Laura: I think you are absolutely on target here, it’s about feeling safe and able to, as you say, just confront and say, Gee, try to see other points of view and hear what could be a critique. So when you said, Gee, I don’t like the way you are talking to me, often the person who is being addressed says, You know what? Go to HR, file a complaint, I don’t want to hear it or Who are you? or I’ll file the complaint. Because that’s the knee jerk reaction, and as you quite happily say, if I felt safe enough to say to you, Hey Brandon, what you said back there to me in front of that customer, I didn’t like that. And you responded, Oh, I didn’t know I did that, I was in a rush and I was busy and whatever. Okay, so we are done now – as opposed to, I don’t say anything, I resent you. Then it gets bigger, and you have no idea, and before you know it we are at odds, we can’t work together and it’s big a problem.

Brandon: In all the years of working with communication issues, what are some the most frequent things that pop up? I kind of want to get a little sample for what sort of issues you are dealing with. I imagine a lot of people listening will definitely draw some parallels to some of your stories.

Laura: This one is an interesting one, two receptionists – they are friends, have been working as receptionist in this particular office for a long time, sitting next to each other, no problems, everything is fine. Their children are dating, okay that sounds okay. Now their children break up, and they stop speaking to each other. So now what? Now they’re not speaking to each other. Not an easy thing, right? Their communication just breaks down, totally breaks down.

5049dacbAnother issue is general conflict. So you have a bar staff and the bar back, a bar back is an assistant to a bartender and somebody who is supposed to assist. In this particular case the bar back, it’s agreed by all the bartenders, they’re not doing their job. He’s disappearing at important times, he’s not assisting. So one of the bartenders says to him, very clearly, Listen, I need you to be here more often, I need you to do X, Y, and Z. I feel like you are not doing it and I need you to do this. Well he gets very upset and goes to another bartender and says,  James says that I’m not doing a good job, what do you think? This bartender doesn’t like conflict, so he says Oh you’re doing fine. Which is not the truth! So now, poor James is under the bus, and the bar back feels free to continue to do the job he is doing, which is not great, and you see that it’s a mess. There are so many little things going on here.

I dealt with a group of managers who, and I believe this is a common issue, work on different shifts often don’t see each other. So if I have the AM shift and you have the PM shift, I may be gone by the time you are even starting up. And I leave notes of course if I am responsible and I send you a text or an email if anything has happened, but there’s not a real strong link there. So if I don’t like you so much, maybe I just kind of rushed out the door and left some things for you to handle, like a staff issue. And they come running to you and start screaming about something that happened on my shift and now you’re angry at me and you’ve got a big fat mess on your hands. So those kinds of things – management groups need strong communication.

Brandon: So in this situation or in any of those stories, if I am in a management, leadership position and I see this happening between my employees, do you think as a manager that I should jump in to fix it and resolve the issues or should I let it play out? Is there another alternative resolve those issues a lot faster, especially if you don’t know what’s going on but you see friction?

Laura: I think the jumping in and attempting to fix – no.

Brandon: I agree, I figured you would say that.

Laura: Definitely no. However, I think modeling sitting down and saying Hey, this is what I am seeing, I am seeing X, Y, and Z and the job’s not getting done. This is what I see, so let’s talk about it. I see James doing this, he was the manager, so this models a direct approach. So instead of just kind of ignoring it or jumping in and saying, Listen! You people have just got to get your act together and serve the customers, because that happens too. Which I get, that frustration. You have people to answer to and you just want to get the customer served, but sitting down and saying, Listen, let’s discuss this and see if we can work this out because what I am seeing is X, Y, and Z and we need to work this out – that’s the approach to take with this.

Letting it play out depends, if it’s a small thing and it looks like it’s going to just work its own kinks out, then yes. It’s always a judgment call of course, but I guess my overall point would be to model that coming right at it and being direct about it and saying I am observing this, and let’s sort it all out – that helps to create the safe atmosphere where that can be done, which is what we talking about 10 minutes ago, where you said to make people safe and comfortable enough to hear their point of views and not feel like it’s an attack.

photo-1461280360983-bd93eaa5051bBrandon Laura, I’m not really sure how much time you spent on the conflict resolution versus the proactive training side of communication, but if we look at what managers and leaders and HR professionals can do to reduce the communication breakdowns that may happen in the future and that ultimately, as you eluded to when you were talking about the union story, end up being a bigger conflict than needed because it was probably small at one point, what are some things we can, whether it’s tools or training, that we can put in the hands of our employees and managers that would reduce a lot of these issues long term?

Laura: I think the first one would be what I mentioned about a check-in. I think checking in with your staff, whenever that occurs whether at the beginning of the shift or at the end of the shift depending on your business and how it works. I just think it’s crucial to continue to keep yourself tuned in to what’s going on. And however you best with your management style do that, great! But do it, because often what I find is people want to be heard, not necessarily you are going to fix their problem or you’re going to respond. So whether they have a suggestion or not, it doesn’t mean they expect you to necessarily take it, but they want to know that they have been heard. So if you are checking in on a regular basis and really authentically saying that you want to hear what’s going on, that’s the first step which really makes a huge difference, it really does.

Other tools I think are what we just spoke about, so if you are tuned in and you see something that doesn’t look right, take the time to say, Look, I’m seeing this and we need to discuss it.

I also think, from an HR perspective, a training tool for the management and leaders of the organization would be what I’m saying now. So I don’t know that all managers are trained or told by HR, Hey listen, you should be checking in, you should be tuning in. So even having a training where you did that, talking about different styles of tuning in and checking in and what’s worked for you and what’s not worked. Those continued connections on a regular basis – that’s the key to all of it because the escalation happens when no one’s minding the store, no one’s paying attention and if you think Gee, she looks really upset, don’t ignore it. Yes, it’s not your job to deal with everyone’s individual problems and all that, I get that – that’s not the point. The point is, oh, that doesn’t look so good, let me just file that away and keep it in mind and just keep an eye on it. And then maybe if it goes away, it was just a one-time thing, but sometimes it isn’t and the tuning in the piece is key.

Brandon: Let’s take this a little further and have a little fun with it. If there is a utopian business environment where no communication issues ever existed—you might be out of a job unfortunately—how would people treat each other and what would the vibe be amongst people? How would they just avoid all the communication issues?

Laura: That’s interesting, I love that! First of all, the utopia would actually have quite a lot of conflict in it. Yes, this is something that I think is not widely understood, but a healthy communicating group has conflict.

Brandon: That’s a great point!

SmileLaura: Yes. I often, when I teach group work, I tell my students, If your group, your staff, your meeting is all smiles, and everyone is happy and agreeing with each other – you are not doing your job right. Because people disagree, and if they’re keeping it quiet, that’s not healthy. So a healthy utopian group would have lots of conflict, and that conflict would be managed in a methodical way, meaning the leaders would be working through it, identifying the facts of the problem, what exactly is going on, let’s explore it, who said what to whom and why – wow that’s provocative, tell us more about that, what’s up with that provocative statement? And then you go through it and you sort it out and you come to consensus rather than a majority vote or a compromise or a winner/loser thing, again, that’s utopia. We can all see each other’s point of view, empathize – empathy is huge, I think if there were more empathy in the workplace, communication would be a lot better.

Brandon: Thank you for painting the picture that was not quite what I thought you would say, but it makes total sense that if you have a lot of conflicts and you work through it, then you are more likely to get to a resolution a lot faster in the future.

Laura: Yes, absolutely.

Brandon: I want to give you the last word about the subject, any thoughts or advice for the listeners and any links and resources, either your own work or other work that you know people can get some value from?

Laura: My website, I will give you that. There’s a lot of things on there, which is As far as other links and resources, I work with a lot of social work books. I had an interview a while ago where I thought was very interesting idea – the reporter was asking leaders and HR people what they read and what they look at. I talked about reading a book called Skills for Direct Practice in Social Work by Middleman and Wood. This book is skill base, it’s all different skills and they’re all people skills. It’s a social work directed book but the skills are useful to everyone in any kind of interaction with people, whether it’s individual 1-on-1, whether it’s a group, whether it’s work or family or friends or colleagues. The skills are described, explained and with examples and I think it’s very practical guide. I’m all about practical. I think it’s great to talk about theories and many theories are about all kinds of things.

Brandon: Yeah, they’re hard to put into action.

Laura: Exactly, exactly. It’s hard to put it into action, and the question is totally legitimate. I can know everything in the world about the theories for conflict resolution and problem solving and all kind of things, but at the end of the day what do I do when there is a big disagreement and I’m somebody who doesn’t like conflicts, I kind of like avoid it, I’m uncomfortable with it, I sweep it under the rug, though I know I shouldn’t. What practically do I do? And this book helps with those kinds of practical skills which is I think the point here, I think that’s what missing in a lot of workplaces. It’s tough, I don’t know how to minimize it because conflict is not easy for anybody.

Brandon: Certainly is not! Laura MacLeod, thank you so much for being on the podcast. This has been a lot of fun! Hope to chat with you again soon.

Laura: Great, I’d love to, Brandon! It’s been a pleasure. Thank you!

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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