I had the privilege of a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in early 2012, to coach some managers whom I had trained on a previous workshop. On an off day, sitting at a roadside café drinking coffee, I noticed about 65 high school students walking past on their lunch break. What was surprising about this otherwise fairly normal event was that everyone, without exception, was looking down and using their Blackberries and iPhones. No-one looked up even though they were multi-skilling and talking to each other – everyone was busy on their respective phones, communicating with dozens of people.

On many different occasions, this time in Zambia, I have always been struck with how many mobiles most Zambians own and use – most Zambians have at least two cell phones and many have three! After asking many questions about this phenomenon, I found out ultimately that there are three cellular networks in Zambia, so people have a phone for each network to save money by not having to make cross-network calls. Perhaps the fastest growing business sector in Africa over the last decade has been that of the mobile service providers and other related communication industries – providing communication opportunities for millions of people on the continent. People want connectedness, need to be in touch with family and friends and have access to data and other digital applications.

Clearly the smartphone has become an essential communication and productivity tool for most people and can really be helpful in a multitude of applications. A tool in and of itself, however, no matter how smart it is, doesn’t address the communication impact of the conversations that are held. A large percentage of the conversations focus on functional and mundane aspects of life and very few actually meet the need of meaningful connection with people. Managers particularly have a very bad record in many companies of not “scratching where it itches” in the lives and work experiences of their employees. Conversations are limited to giving direction or issuing orders and the emotional aspects of work life are left largely unaddressed.

Communication with employees that can be classified as meaningful or impactful could include the following ingredients:

  • Personal attention – taking time to understand family contexts, celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, acknowledging personal achievement
  • Job-focus – this relates to role and wellness in the workplace (What are you doing well? What suggestions for improvement do you have for yourself? How can I help and support you? Do you have any suggestions for me?)
  • Performance – how well the employee is doing against the backdrop of job expectations and set targets
  • Recognition – personal congratulation for good/great performance
  • Career growth – how the employee and then the manager sees the employee’s career path unfolding
  • Giftedness – discussion around issues such as strengths and weaknesses, special skills, assets and passions and how these can be used appropriately within the role of the employee and his/her contribution to the team
  • Salary – what the employee would like to be earning and then a discussion around what role the employee needs to be playing in order to be able to be earning this salary
  • Development – what additional training would be helpful/desirable to grow the employee
  • Big picture – ensuring that the company mission, vision, values and strategy are well understood by the employee

Using available technology – smartphones, e-mail, social networks and the like – is useful, even effective, but not necessarily impactful means of communication. Communication that is meaningful and impactful requires focus on the person – his/her story, events, life/work issues. In the workplace, this requires spending meaningful time with each individual, having the conversations that count.

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