A study by the Project Management Institute found that 56% of all risks associated with projects stem from ineffective communication. Despite this, only 25% of organizations are highly effective communicators.
The communication skills gap widens as conversations span job levels. While much discussion happens among higher-level teams about how they need to improve communication among each other to boost performance, there is minimal thought invested in optimizing how higher-level professionals interact with the assistants and other staff who support them.
Here are 4 communication skills you need to develop stronger, more supportive relationships with your assistants and other support staff:
1) Set Up a Communication Cadence
Your assistant should rank towards the top of your priority list of people to talk to. Set recurring times on your calendar to meet with your assistant so that you don’t let your busy schedule get in the way of speaking with your support staff.
- Set up live weekly syncs via phone, video conferencing, or in-person. These are short meetings that briefly review the past week and explain what to expect moving forward. Unless you have an important meeting or event, you should not miss this sync.
- Share your preferred communication channels for various circumstances. For example, you may prefer email for non-urgent updates and to receive assignments, Slack or another messaging app for brief, non-urgent questions and updates that you need to respond to within a day or so, and phone calls for urgent questions and information that needs to be dealt with immediately.
- Set up training sessions and milestone reviews for large projects. Complex tasks should not be dealt with during weekly syncs because they require additional time and attention. If your training sessions proactively prevent errors then, your review meetings should run smoothly and stay within their time limits.
Developing a communication cadence with your assistant is one of the easiest ways to ensure you both stay on track.
2) Leave Nothing to the Imagination
Giving clear, holistic instructions is one of the most critical communication skills for working with assistants. Unlike middle and senior-level employees who can complete projects based on a general description of the results you want to obtain, support staff needs explicit directions to do their jobs effectively.
Remember, your assistant can’t read your mind. If you want tasks completed in alignment with your specific preferences, you have to state what they are and, if it’s an involved task, how to do it.
During phases when you start working with a new assistant and when you give an existing one new responsibilities, make yourself available for questions. These are prime phases for them to learn your preferences and, the more accessible you are, the less likely they are to make time-wasting mistakes.
3) Add Empathetic Touches
A study from the Center of Creative Leadership found that managers who display empathy toward their subordinates are rated far more positively by their bosses than managers who behave neutrally or negatively toward their employees.
When you’re communicating with subordinates, remember that they are not just in your organization to do your bidding; they are humans with unique talents, stresses, goals, etc. Rather than solely communicating with your support staff to give instructions, answer questions, and dialogue about other work-related items, add some personal touches that show you care.
Here are some ways you can make your communication more empathetic:
- Before assigning new tasks on Mondays, ask your support staff how their weekend was and be genuinely interested in their answers.
- Ask about your assistant's availability before demanding something gets done immediately. Remember, they can sometimes be just as busy and stressed out as you are. Asking about their schedule opens up a conversation that can save them from being pressured to reach impossibly tight deadlines.
- Acknowledge positive events in their personal life and career. Sending a quick message for birthdays, work anniversaries, and exciting milestones is a quick and easy way to strengthen your relationship with them.
- Express your gratitude when they complete tasks. Research shows that telling employees you appreciate them on a regular basis boosts their morale, engagement, and organizational commitment.
- Offer encouragement when passing off difficult tasks. Though most support staff will complete projects you tell them to without complaint, many get nervous when you give them assignments outside of their normal scope of work. Telling them that you believe they’ll do great can work wonders in boosting their confidence.
Making a habit of adding personal touches to your conversations is a communication skill that makes a huge difference in your ability to develop a productive and long-lasting relationship with your assistant.
4) Never Communicate While Angry
Though some of the most inspirational business leaders like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk are known for getting angry at their employees, that leadership style fails to motivate support staff.
Research shows that when leaders display anger, it has a drastically different effect based on their followers’ level of agreeableness. Agreeableness is one of the Big 5 personality factors and explains an individual's tendency to show pro-social behaviors including cooperation, altruism, and empathy.
People who are low in agreeableness tend to have type A personalities and care about being right more than they do about protecting people’s feelings. Since these individuals aren’t very concerned about pleasing others, they’re willing to engage in heated discussions with leaders. Mutual anger often drives low agreeable employees to achieve fantastic results which is why it works well with opinionated engineers and leaders at innovative companies like Apple, Amazon, and SpaceX.
However, people who have highly agreeable personalities prioritize social harmony and tend to give in or shut down when others display aggressive emotions. Since support staff roles are altruistic, many assistants are high in this trait. Studies indicate that when leaders display anger toward these employees, their performance drastically declines.
Whenever you’re frustrated, wait until you feel calm before talking to your assistant. The more kind and cooperative you act toward them, the more comfortable they will feel working for you, and it’ll reflect in the quality of their work.
Mastering these four communication skills will enable you to foster a positive and productive relationship with your assistant.
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About the Author: Emily formerly led Prialto's content production and distribution team with a special passion for helping people realize success. Her work and collaborations have appeared in Entrepreneur, Inc. and the Observer among others.