Expert Commentary

The Role of Communication in Effective Supervision

The supervisor is in a unique position, serving as the link between management and the workforce. Senior management articulates the vision, middle management devises the strategy, and the supervisor has to ensure that the workforce performs the work. To accomplish this, the supervisor has to be able to effectively communicate with the workforce.


Construction Safety
October 2014

To function effectively within the organization, the supervisor also has to be able to effectively communicate horizontally as well as vertically (see Figure 1). People in organizations spend over three-quarters of their time in some form of interpersonal situation. Poor communication skills carry a great deal of liability. Employees and especially supervisors who do not communicate effectively are at a disadvantage and do not do thrive in organizations.

Figure 1: Communication Flow

Communication Flow

Though we have been communicating with others from a very early age, the process of transmitting information from one person to another is complex. Research has found that there is erosion of meaning in the neighborhood of 40–60 percent in the transmission of information from one person to another. Given the above, it is not surprising that a substantial number of interpersonal issues, performance problems, and misunderstandings have their roots in poor communication. So it is critical to appreciate, understand, and be aware of the potential barriers to effective communication.

The Basics

Language is a means and an important factor in our communication. It is used to convey and exchange ideas and meaning, to talk to people, and to express thoughts. It is the vehicle that helps the people with whom we are trying to communicate clearly understand the message being conveyed. The choice of words or language used in the message will influence the quality of communication. So the words used may have to be chosen with the different recipients in mind. Are the words used easy to understand by the recipient? Is the phrasing easy to grasp? Is descriptive language used? Is the ultimate message clear? By thinking about the end result—that is, what happens once you finish speaking—you can choose the words you'll need and decide how to use them to ensure that the desired outcome is achieved.

Research has shown that listeners have to put together what is being said with how it is being said in order to fully understand what is being conveyed. Effective basic communication has six elements: the sender, the receiver, the channel, contextual factors, the message itself, and feedback (see Figure 2). For communication to be effective, the supervisor must understand and manage the potential variables that may affect these elements.

Figure 2: The Two-Way Communication Model

The Two-Way Communication Model

Sender: (source) the person trying to communicate information, provide direction, establish performance, give feedback, etc. How the supervisor communicates affects the relationship with the workforce.

Receiver: (destination) the person receiving the message and trying to understand it. The relationship the worker has with the supervisor affects how that worker views the information and reacts to it.

Channel: The communication channels can be formal, informal, or unofficial; personal or impersonal; and active or static. The communication method (or channel) selected should depend on the type of message or its content. Before choosing which method to use, consider whether the message is interactive or static and whether it is best suited for personal or impersonal transmission. Each of these impacts the quality of the exchange.

  • Interactive is a two-way communication. It allows for a discussion (back and forth).
  • Static is a one-way communication. The receiver cannot provide immediate feedback.
  • The question is whether the communication should be one-way or two-way. What does your message require? You also need an understanding of the potential challenges with which the recipient may have to deal, what the recipient may need to be able to effectively carry out the instructions, etc.

  • Personal communication means a conversation, which needs to be face to face or by phone.
  • Impersonal communication is in some form of writing.
  • Does your communication require you to hear or see the other person? Are you trying to build a relationship or improve rapport? Will the tone of voice be important for this particular message or case? Is the information or idea potentially confusing to the recipient?

The communication channel becomes richest (see Figure 3) when the human element is a part of the exchange.

Face-to-face or personal communication is one of the richest channels of communication that can be used within an organization. The physical presence, the tone of the speaker's voice, gestures, posture, and facial expressions help the recipient(s) of a message to interpret that message as the speaker intends it. This is the best channel to use for complex or emotionally charged messages, because it allows for interaction between speaker and recipient(s) so as to clarify ambiguity. A speaker can evaluate whether an audience has received the message as intended, ask or answer follow-up questions, and provide clarification as required. The more complicated the message is, the richer the channel should be. When the message is routine and easy to understand, a lean channel is more appropriate.

Figure 3: Communication Channels

Communication Channels

Message: The message is the information being transmitted. The message can be verbal and/or nonverbal. To reduce potential problems, the senders should use appropriate words and a clear, straightforward structure; provide all the necessary and relevant information so that it is easily understood; etc. This requires the sender to have some idea of the capabilities of the recipient to understand it and to have the motivation to respond to it affirmatively.

Feedback: The only way the sender can determine that the message was received and understood is to get some form of confirmation from the receiver. This can be in the form of acknowledgement, parroting, or paraphrasing. If there is some misunderstanding or there are barriers to the receiver's ability to respond affirmatively to the information in the message, the sender needs feedback to identify the possible barriers involved. This may require a few exchanges in order to resolve the issue.

Context: The circumstances surrounding our communication play a part in determining its success or failure. Although many types of situations affect the messages we send, one particular type that can easily distort our messages is communication under stress. Stress, by its very nature, makes it difficult for us to "think clearly." In a stressful situation, the meaning of the message can be distorted; subtle shades of meaning can be confused; pieces of information can be missed or forgotten; minor points may seem more important than major ones. In addition, the wording or structure of the communication may suffer. Uncertainty, nervousness, and confusion can creep into the speaker's voice, resulting in a less assertive statement.

Barriers to Communication

Successful communication involves getting the point across to another person. Many barriers to communication exist in any organization, which detract from its effectiveness. This can be more pervasive in the construction industry due to a number of unique elements. These barriers can be environmental, situational, or personal.

Physical barriers can prevent or hinder individuals from engaging in effective communication. A host of these barriers can be present in the general area and adversely affect the exchange. They include closed doors, walled-in offices, physical distance, and/or physical discomfort. The area can be noisy or crowded. If the conversation occurs outdoors, the weather conditions may have some form of impact as well.

Culture can have a significant impact on communication. Organizational culture is created by the leadership of the organization and can become ingrained into the very fabric of the way things are communicated and business is done on a day-to-day basis. Some organizational cultures are open and supportive of input from employees and a two-way flow of information. Other cultures are more top-down—where leaders convey messages but don't seek input from staff or other stakeholders. Some cultures create workplace climates that impede people from expressing what they feel, which causes them to say only what they think is expected of them. Organizational leadership needs to be cognizant of what information needs to be shared, when it should be shared, and what process should be used to share information. When employees don't have all the information, the "grapevine" is activated, usually to the detriment of the organization.

Bias: Whether we recognize it or not, all people suffer from various biases. These biases can interfere with communication when we are sending or receiving messages. Biases can be based on our preconceived beliefs or on impressions we form about people as we interact with them. When communicating with others, it's important to be aware of and to work at overcoming these biases.

Misinterpretation occurs more often than not. When interacting with others, we sometimes jump to conclusions or misinterpret what is being said. As a result, our response to the message may further impede the effectiveness of the exchange. So it is important to ensure that the message is clear and that the recipient understands it as we intended.

Role conflicts can create barriers to communication in organizations. Regardless of how open managers and senior leaders believe they are to employee input, employees are often hesitant to share their honest insights, especially when those insights may be perceived as critical of management. This particular issue is more problematic for larger organizations than smaller ones, since these tend to be less formal and bureaucratic.

Other barriers deal with people's perceptions, emotions, and attitude; a lack of communication skills; a lack of knowledge or interest; inability to use language effectively; or the timing of the message. Other factors may involve the selection of the communication channel or the effectiveness of the technology. Most barriers occur at the interfaces within the communication process (see Figure 4). This may be caused by how the sender structures the message or how the receiver interprets it. We do not always effectively communicate what we are thinking or intending to say. Communication failures arise when there is a gap between what the sender meant and what the receiver thought the sender meant.

Figure 4: Communication Barriers

Communication Barriers

Some examples of the causes of communication failure:

  • Being so preoccupied that you don't listen to what others are saying
  • Being so sure of the importance of what you have to say that you fail to listen, instead breaking in to voice your thoughts
  • Assuming that you know what the other is going to say and breaking in to voice your response
  • Listening with a closed mind and therefore discounting the content of the message
  • Being so focused on the words that the emotional aspect of the message is missed
  • Discounting what is being said due to mistrust of the speaker

All of these barriers can be overcome by conscious effort.

Conclusion

Most people want to communicate effectively but may not have an acute appreciation of the barriers involved. Because of a multitude of potential barriers, there is ample opportunity for something to go wrong in any communication. Douglas McGregor, an expert in the field said, "It is a fairly safe generalization that difficulties in communication within an organization are more often than not, mere symptoms of underlying difficulties in relationships between parties involved. When communication is ineffective, one needs to look first at the nature of these relationships rather than at ways of improving communication."

A supervisor is a critical link between management and the workforce and, as such, must be a highly effective communicator. To be successful, the supervisor must develop an awareness of the potential barriers to communication and learn how to cope with and effectively overcome them. The supervisor must also appreciate the fact that the quality of the relationship between the sender and receiver to a great extent determines the ability of the person transmitting the message to overcome many of the communication barriers. So the supervisor has to be not only an effective communicator but also a relationship builder.


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