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How often do you ask someone to repeat themselves? How often do you understand what someone is saying the first time they say it? If you’re unsure, go through a whole day, talking to others and try to truly understand every single word they’re saying. If you’re unsure, ask them to repeat themselves or to clarify. Try to keep count how often you do this for just one day—I guarantee you it’s more than you think.
This is especially true in the workplace, where we might be talking and engaging with folks in a totally different way than our close friends and acquaintances. And I don’t just mean in the words we use, but the way we say things and the tone and inflection we use to convey information. We all come from different backgrounds and our upbringings can make communication between colleagues wildly different—and sometimes difficult. What one person reads as a passing comment can truly hurt the feelings of another.
One of the reasons I wanted to write about this was because so many leaders think policies and rules are clear. They think their intentions are generally well-articulated, but when I ask how they’re sure, they say something along the lines of, “because I’ve said so in the past,” or “because my staff knows.”
That’s not enough.
I want to break this point down into three checkpoints: stating a rule, reinforcing a rule, and understanding a rule—all three of these things are different.
Stating a rule: The simplest way to communicate an idea. This is going over a rule or policy in a moment, like an interview or an onboarding process.
Reinforcing a rule: This is finding multiple ways to communicate an idea, and usually entails multiple forms of communication that aren’t just verbal. Having an employee handbook or a checklist at a staff meeting qualify under reinforcement.
Understanding a rule: This means making sure the person meant to utilize the rule (usually an employee) understands when and where they need to implement the rule. This can range from setting examples to checking for understanding to asking if they know how the rule applies to them and opening the door for questions. This is much more complicated.
Stating a rule or policy isn’t the same as reinforcing it. Likewise, reinforcing it isn’t the same as making sure folks understand what it means and that they know how to apply it.
Let’s say, for example, you have a policy that folks can take two paid days off. You say this to all the new hires when they first start working for you—but then it never comes up again. Your employee has never seen anyone else use it. Do you think that they understand how to ask for it?
Take it a step further. You say it, you write it down in a manual (reinforcing the policy). But the employee still hasn’t seen anyone else use it. Maybe they wonder if that’s a policy that’s nice on paper, but seldom used. Or maybe they assume that if they ask for a paid day off, they’ll be seen as lazy or not dedicated. In this case, you said the rule and reinforced it, but haven’t made sure the employee truly understands how to use it.
I struggle with this constantly. Even though I know there are rules and policies meant to support me, I feel deeply uncomfortable asking for them. What if my boss thinks I’m being selfish? What if I’m seen as greedy for asking for something even if the rules state I’m allowed to do so?
Simply relying on written policies and vaguely communicated statements means that they will be interpreted differently by your staff members—and I imagine most will feel uncomfortable utilizing them.
Let’s use a slightly different example than the paid days off: sick days. In many states, folks are guaranteed a certain number of sick days. And, if you’re a conscientious employer, you want people to use those sick days when they’re sick. But how many times have you (or your employees) come into work when they were sick? I imagine many folks (yourself included) felt like if they took a sick day they might be seen in a negative light—especially if you don’t communicate how important you think it is to take time off when you’re ill.
When it comes to communication, I like to imagine two dots. One is the idea you’re trying to make, and the other is an employee understanding the idea. Really good communicators understand that the line between those two points needs to be drawn. That line is the why of a rule: why do sick days matter? Why do you want to give folks paid time off? Why do we give certain free drinks to folks?
Rules and policies don’t matter if you don’t draw that line clearly—and they especially don’t matter if your employees don’t see or understand the line.
So if you notice that, even though you have a sick time policy, no one uses it, ask your staff why. Go back to the why of the rule: do you believe that folks will make a speedier recovery when they stay home? Do they know that you have their back if they have to call out a shift? If your staff doesn’t know how or why policies are in place, and they don’t know how to utilize them, they’re as good as garbage music videos.