Tips for effective communication

The previous post is all about theoretical knowledge of communication. In this post, I will make it more practical by suggesting tips that can be used to improve the effectiveness of communication. The tips will be categorized into 4 sections: conversation, listening, writing and emails.


Tips for better conversation
  • Think before you speak: Some people response very quickly to other’s saying or questions, thinking that it would make them look smart. However,  a careful silence moment for preparation can make us sound more intelligent and prevent mistakes.
  • Be receptive to new ideas: By saying “Tell me more” instead of “That’s stupid” when hearing something that you do not agree to can help you to get more information and move the conversation forward.
  • Ask questions: This show that you are interested in the topic.
  • Listen as much, if not more, than you speak: You can not learn from the conversation if you are the only one who speak.
  • Use eye contact: Eye contact shows that you are engaged in the conversation. It should be noted that for some cultures, it is rude to maintain eye contact with the speakers. For other cultures, such as in the US, maintaining eye contact shows that you are a trustworthy person.
  • Mirror the other person:  Repeat what the other say in your own words “So you mean that …”.
  • Have an exit strategy: Sometimes, good conversation is a brief one, leaving others wanting more.
Tips for active listening:
  • Pay attention: This can be done by keeping eye contact with the speaker and avoiding having distracted thoughts. Research also shows that people listen more effectively when they do nothing else at the same time. So no multitasking while listening, including taking note. In addition, the body language of the speaker should also be checked to see if it actually matches with the message or not. If they do not match, the message should be confirmed with the speaker.
  • Show that you are listening: This can be done by nodding occasionally or by other facial expressions such as smiling. In addition, such small verbal comments as “Uh…”, “Yes…” should be used to encourage the speaker.
  • Provide feedback: This can be done by asking questions or reflecting what has been said by paraphrasing.
  • Defer judgment: Preparing for counter arguments while listening is strongly not recommended. This is also consistent with the first tip about no multitasking while listening. In addition, it is very important not to interrupt the speakers with counter arguments. Interrupting can be offensive and aggressive in some situations.
  • Silence can be a beautiful thing: It is totally fine to have a moment of silence for some preparation before you start your turn to speak.
Tips for effective writing:
  • Picture the receiver in your mind before you begin to write: This can help you to select the words and expressions that can be understood by the readers.
  • Choose simple words: For words that have the same meaning, simpler one should be used. For example, “car” should be used instead of “automobile”.
  • Be polite: It is always good to be polite in your writing.
  • Trim redundant words or phrases: “Having thus explored our first option, I would now like to begin to explore the second option that may be open to us.” should be replaced by “After considering option 1, I would like to look at option 2”.
  • Choose strong, active verbs: Instead of writing “It would seem to me that we might…”, “I suggest…” should be used.
Tips for emails:
  • Be concise: The shorter the email is, the better it is. It is also a good practice to have only one topic for one email.
  • Communicate “action steps” first, not last: Make the request in the first line (or even in the subject) of the email. Repeat the request again at the end if the email is long.
  • Number the questions or ideas: When there are multiple questions or ideas in the email, they should be numbered. This can help the recipients to address those questions or ideas more quickly in their replies.
  • Include deadlines: If the request in the email has a deadline, it should also be included in the email.
  • Use “FYI” for emails that have no actionable information: This is more convenient for the recipients to prioritize their emails.
  • Tell them that you will get to it later: This can minimize the anxiety of the senders and prevent them from sending the email again.
  • Avoid sending “Thanks!” emails: This can be arguable. Some people prefer receiving replied email with just the word “Thanks!” but for some people, this type of email is quite spammy because it has no value information.
  • Check before “Reply All”: This is to avoid sending sensitive information to some recipients who should not receive it or spamming unrelated recipients with irrelevant information.

Bruno Kahne . (2008). Lessons of Silence. Available: Last accessed 26th Nov 2012.

Jocelyn K. Glei. (2010). Email Etiquette for the Super-Busy. Available: Last accessed 26th Nov 2012.

Mind Tools. (2012). Active Listening: Hear What People are Really Saying. Available: Last accessed 26th Nov 2012.

Talya Bauer and Berrin Erdogan (2009). Organizational Behavior. USA: Flat World Knowledge, Inc.

Interview questions to uncover organizational culture

A few weeks ago, I received a newsletter email from Navigos Search, one of the leading recruitment firms in Vietnam. Such newsletter emails usually provide tips for job candidates and that time, it was about “7 interview questions to uncover corporate culture” (the original article is from Scott Ginsberg, which can be found here). However, I myself don’t think that those questions are detailed enough to be actually helpful. As a result, I come up with a set of questions myself, and the number of questions is more than just seven.

Organizational culture

The approach that I have while defining this list of questions is based on the seven key dimensions of organizational culture. Details about the seven key dimensions can be found in session 3 of my first post. Each question in the list will help the candidates to uncover one key dimension of the corporate culture:

Individual Autonomy:
  • Is empowerment strongly encouraged? Does it happen regularly?
  • Is it compulsory for all employees to be self-managed and self-organized?
  • Is decision making centralized or decentralized?
  • Does the company have a lot of rules and policies?
  • Does the company have a flat or a hierarchical organizational structure?
  • How many levels of hierarchy does the organizational structure have?
  • How willing are managers to support their subordinates?
  • Will managers be upset if their staffs seek for assistance from them?
  • Are managers encouraged to assist their subordinates?
  • Are employees proud of being part of the company?
  • Are employees eager to join public events on behalf of the company?
  • Do the employees usually wear company T-shirt to work? Outside the office?
  • Does the company have any CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) program?
Performance Reward:
  • How does the reward system or the evaluation system work?
  • Which factors are rewards (salary raise, bonus, promotion) based on? Performance? Seniority? Loyalty? Relationship?
  • Does the evaluation system compare employees to absolute standards or to each other?
Conflict Tolerance:
  • Does work-related conflict acceptable?
  • Does personal conflict acceptable?
  • Is it acceptable to have work-related conflict with your manager?
  • Is it normal to have a work-related argument with your manager in public?
  • Is aggressiveness acceptable?
  • Are people aggressive when discussing and arguing?
Risk Tolerance:
  • Is it acceptable to take risk?
  • Is the terms “high risk, high value” usually applied?

As you can see, there are a lot of questions and you may not have enough time to ask all of them in the interview. One suggestion is to find the answers for some of the questions by doing some researches or to ask only about the dimensions that are important to you. Usually you will have a chance to ask questions about the company at the end of the interview and by asking questions about organizational culture, you can impress the interviewers. The key point here is to be able to gain more understandings about the organizational culture to make sure that you can fit into it. This is extreme important because you can not perform well in a culture that you do not fit in.

An appropriate organizational culture for a start-up software company

Acting as a follow-up on the previous post, in this post I will discuss about how to use the seven key dimensions model to define an “appropriate” organizational culture for a particular company. A typical start-up software company will be discussed in this case due to the fact that this type of company is quite popular nowadays as well as I am very familiar with it.

Seven key dimensions of organizational culture

The first rule of thumb to remember when defining an organizational culture is that it must be aligned with the company objectives and strategic plan. This acts as the main principle when defining the seven key dimensions of the organizational culture:
  • Individual Autonomy: High. In a start-up company, each individual should have a high degree of responsibility and independence to get as much job done as possible. Empowerment should be encouraged and decision-making should be decentralized. To adapt quickly to the rapid changes of the market, more and more software companies apply agile methodologies such as Extreme Programming or Scrum. Those methodologies required self-managed and self-organized staffs and this can only be achieved with a high level go individual autonomy.
  • Structure: Low. A flat organizational structure is strongly encouraged for a start-up software company. In addition, it should not have a lot of rules and policies, which may have bad impacts on the inspiration and creativity of its employees. In the software industry, creativity and ideas are the key factors to success.
  • Support: High. In my opinion, high degree of assistance and warmth provided by managers to their subordinates is always a good thing in all company, not just a start-up software one.
  • Identification: High. Similarly to the Support dimension, it is always good for an organization when its employees are proud of being part of it. A high level of Identification is also good for company branding.
  • Performance Reward: High. In a start-up company, performance should be the main factor that affect such rewards as salary increase, bonus and promotion, not seniority or loyalty.
  • Conflict Tolerance: High. Conflicts should be encouraged in a start-up software company, as long as they are related to work and they are not personal conflicts. High level of work-related conflicts can increase creativity and help to find the optimal solutions, which are vert important in the software industry.
  • Risk Tolerance: High. Similar to the Conflict Tolerance dimension, a high level of Risk Tolerance provides more advantages than disadvantages to a software company. When taking risk is encouraged, it is more likely to find creative and optimal solutions in the software industry.
Once the key dimensions of the organizational culture have been defined, they can be “implemented” within the following artifacts:
  • Mission statement, logo and  slogan
  • Policies and rules
  • Reward system
  • Organizational structure
  • Physical layout of the office
  • Recruitment process
  • Orientation program for new employees
  • Management and leadership style

Organizational Culture

1. Preface

The reason why I choose to write about organizational culture in my first post is because I think that it is one of the key factors that contributes to the success or failure of an organization. People talk about organizational culture all the time: in casual discussions between co-workers, in formal speeches given by a CEO, in interviews, etc…  but from my experience, not all of us have a clear understanding about it. Such questions as “What is organizational culture? How can we identify it? How can we measure or evaluate it?” are still a myth to some people.

The purpose of this post (and other similar posts after this) is to help the readers to gain more knowledge about organizational structure. What will be presented here is a combination of what I learn, read and experienced.

2. What is organizational culture?

Organizational culture is a set of basic beliefs and assumptions that are shared by members of an organization, showing them what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior (Bauer and Erdogan, 2009). To make it more casual, organizational culture is basically “how we do things around here”. The verb “do” in this definition has a very broad meaning, covering all activities that happen at an organization. Such things are all part of the organizational culture:
  • How do people dress? Formal or casual?
  • Is it appropriate to argue with the boss in public?
  • Is it normal to work overtime?
  • Is it important to check email regularly during weekend?
  • Is it normal to take risk?
  • How are people rewarded or promoted?
  • … and many more things

Organizational Culture

So the scope of what define an organizational culture is broad. But where are they “stored”? Where are they “contained” or documented? According to Bauer and Erdogan (2009),  an organizational culture is “contained” at three levels: assumptions, values and artifacts.

Levels of organizational culture

The first two levels, assumptions and values, are below our conscious awareness. They are the shared beliefs, principles, standards, and goals of members within the organization. And at the surface, there are artifacts, the visible aspects of organizational culture. Here are some examples of these artifacts:
  • Logo
  • Slogan
  • Policies, rules and procedures
  • Guidelines
  • Reward system
  • Workflow and process
  • Organizational structure and titles
  • Orientation plan
  • Training programs
  • Physical environment
  • Office layout
  • Employee interaction

3. Key dimension of organizational culture

So now you can identify what make your organizational culture. How can you analyze and evaluate it? There are many approaches for this but the one that I prefer is to use the key dimensions. In this approach, organizational culture will be analyzed and evaluated basing on the seven key dimensions:
  • Individual autonomy: the level of responsibility, independence and empowerment that an individual has in the organization.
  • Structure: the number of rules and regulations, the number of hierarchical levels in the  organizational structure.
  • Support: the degree of assistance provided by managers to their subordinates.
  • Identification: the level of proudness that members have to be part of the organization.
  • Performance reward: the degree to which reward allocations (promotions, salary increases, bonus…) are based on performance criteria.
  • Conflict tolerance: the level of conflict exists in the relationships between members of the organization.
  • Risk tolerance: the degree to which employees are encouraged to be aggressive, innovative, and risk seeking.

4. Primary characteristics of organizational culture

Another approach to characterize an organizational culture is to use the OCP (Organizational Culture Profile) framework.

Organizational Culture Profile

According to the OCP framework, an organizational culture can have one or more of the following characteristics:
  • Innovative: companies that have innovative cultures are flexible, adaptable, and experiment with new ideas. They usually have flat structure in which titles and other status distinctions tend to be downplayed. Examples for this are startup software companies.
  • Aggressive: companies with aggressive cultures encourage competitiveness and outperforming competitors. Such companies as Microsoft or Apple are good example of this type of culture.
  • Outcome-oriented: cultures that focus on achievement, results, and actions. In such cultures, rewards are tied to performance indicators, not to seniority or loyalty. Best Buy is a good example in this case.
  • Stable: cultures that are predictable, rule-oriented, and bureaucratic. Examples of this type of culture can be found in most of the public sector institutions.
  • People-oriented: cultures that value fairness, supportiveness, and respect for individual rights. Company with this type of culture believe that people are their greatest asset and create an atmosphere where work is fun.
  • Team-oriented: cultures that emphasize collaboration and cooperation among employees. In team-oriented organizations, members tend to have more positive relationships with their coworkers as well as their managers. Southwest Airlines can be a good example for this type of culture.
  • Detail-oriented: cultures that focus on precision and paying attention to details. Examples for this are big hotels or McDonald’s Corporation.

5. Strong versus weak organizational culture

A strong organizational culture is the one that is aligned with the strategic plan of the company. In strong organizational cultures, all members have a consensus on the values that drive the organization. Researches have shown that strong organizational  culture usually has positive impacts on performance of the organizations.

On the contrary, a weak organizational culture will have negative impacts on the performance of the organization because it fails to align with the strategic plan. Here are some signs of a weak organizational culture (Deal and Kennedy, 2000):
  • Organizational members have no clear values or beliefs about how to succeed in their business.
  • Organizational members have many beliefs as to how to succeed but cannot agree on which are most important.
  • Different parts of the organization have fundamentally different beliefs about how to succeed.
  • Those who personify the culture are destructive or disruptive and don’t build on any common understanding about what is important.
  • The rituals of day-to-day organizational life are disorganized or working at cross-purposes.

6. Sources of organizational culture

So where do organizational cultures come from? Here are the three main sources of organizational culture:
  • Founders and CEO: an organizational cultures are usually tied to the personality, background, and values of its founder or upper managers, especially during it early years.
  • Industry determinants: industry characteristics and demands act as a force to create similarities among organizational cultures. For example, IT companies usually have innovative culture whereas companies in the insurance and banking industries are stable and rule-oriented.
  • National or regional culture: the culture of the country or the area where the company is located also has significant influence on its organizational culture, mainly via its staffs. A US company and a Vietnamese company, despite the fact that they are in the same industry, will have some certain differences in their organizational cultures.

7. Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize the following important points:
  • Companies need to select people who fit into its organizational culture (and fire people who do not). People usually don’t change how they do things.
  • 30% of company merging is failed due to collapse of culture.
  • Organizational culture must be aligned with the strategic plan.
  • Leaders (founder, CEO, Executive team…) are very important factors that drive the organizational culture. People always look up to see what their leaders are doing. As a result, leaders need to walk the talk.

8. References

Bess, D., 2012. Organization Culture, BUS 626 Organizational Behavior. University of Hawaii at Manoa, unpublished.

Bauer, T. and Erdogan, Berrin., 2009. Organizational Behavior. 1st ed. Flat World Knowledge, Inc.

Deal, T. and Kennedy, A., 2000. Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. 1st ed. Basic Books.