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It Ain’t All Talk – Principles of Team Communication

It’s a truism that communication is vital to a team’s success.

But the umbrella of communication hides a lot of nuance around who is communicating with whom, how ideas are being conveyed, what norms govern the individual interactions and on and on.

Getting on the same page and rowing in the same direction is HARD.

This post summarizes a presentation I gave to around 25 managers at CB Insights last year which aimed at underscoring how important establishing a common language is within a team (and company). Because if your team can’t communicate, it can’t get things done.

There’s a lot of communicating around here

A team is a living entity with a lot of interconnected threads of communication flying around. As a manager you have to consider all of them. For example:

  • You to one
  • One to you
  • One to your boss
  • You to many
  • Many to you
  • Many to many, including you
  • Many to many, not including you
  • You about them
  • Outside-the-team communication (outside of our scope for now)

Many of you by now have experienced, or at least seen, the images of how this complexity begins to grow exponentially as more people (nodes) are added to the system.


A team of two has a much easier time communicating and staying on the same page as a team of 6, which is likely one of the principles at the root of Bezos’s two pizza rule and other manager truisms about small teams moving faster and accomplishing more than larger teams.

There are two obvious but non-trivial truths that flow from this that you need to remain aware of as your team grows:

  • First, there are more lines of communication in which you are not directly involved (and thus the more important the ‘framework/culture’ become
  • Second, you should expect to spend a proportionally larger and larger percent of your time on communication. If your team grows 2x your communication work and overhead might grow 3 or 4x

For the rest of the post I want to explore team-level frameworks for clearer communication and some observations about 1:1 communication.

Let’s start with the most direct form of communication, that between you and a single member of your team.

Individual Level Communication

People are unique in how they communicate and learn. As a manager you will need to take a different approach with each person. This goes for you as well. You have a preferred mode of communication and likely other biases or gaps that your team needs to be aware of.

For example, writing is a key way I shape my thinking. As a result I will often send long emails to my team. I know this doesn’t work for everyone, but reading these carefully is a concession I ask/demand for people working with me. I do assure them that I spend 10x the time writing these emails than they will reading them.

Whatever your style and that of your team you need to be explicit about your joint expectations for how you will interact. This is why many manager’s create and share “manager guidelines” for what works for them.

As one example here’s a slide everyone on my team has seen:


How do you establish a common language?

In my experience creating a common framework (language) for communicating happens in a few ways:

  • Organically
  • Through the overarching culture of the team
  • Via explicit meta-conversations about conversations

Organic Interactions

First, there is the organic process by which working together over time leads to a shared understanding based on past interactions. For example, over time I have learned that when a certain team member says, “you’re the boss,” they are signalling that they are disagreeing with my decision but throwing in the towel on debating it. I only get so many “you’re the boss’s” in a given year so I better know when I am playing that card with this person.

Organic processes are excellent and inevitable but they are also slow and prone to misunderstanding. At a rapidly growing company like ours they are also often inadequate if roles change. Many of you here for example were promoted from within your team and you need to reset parts of the language and communication frameworks you have grown with people.

Getting Meta about Communicating

One tool we have used successfully to jump-start the organic process is to engage in a process of self/team discovery using formal personality assessments like Myers-Briggs and the Gallups Strengthsfinder assessment.

It’s helpful (I think) for my team to know I am an ENTJ who thinks he is a shade less extroverted than most “Es” which give me a healthy doze of INTJ too. Recently we used the Gallups Strengthsfinder to have a fun two hour “onsite” about how we, as a team, have very different strengths and blind spots.

This snapshot of half the team gives you a sense of overlapping skills and differences that can form the basis of a substantive conversation about our preferences:


Our round table covered questions like:

  • Did any of the results or descriptions surprise you?
  • What do you think that means in terms of your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What communication challenges do these different styles represent?
  • How can we leverage our differences in a positive way?

Outside of what we actually learned about one another, the act of setting aside time for something like this is incredibly valuable. It makes it clear that you value each other as people, not just factors of production. It creates moments of vulnerability. It’s a fun exercise for each new team member to go through. And finally, having these discussions across the team and not just 1:1 strengthens the communication lines that you are not directly part of.

In other words, it prevents this:


The 1:1 – The Cornerstone

The 1:1 is a great combination of organic communication layered in a formal framework with expectations that you have ideally aligned around. Much of my success as a manager has been to borrow willingly from the 1:1 principles Andy Grove laid out so well in High Output Management. Grove spends dozens of pages on the 1:1 because to him, the 1:1 addresses the blocking and tackling of a working relationship in which a relatively small amount of your time can “enhance the quality of [the] subordinate’s work for 80+ hours.”

For me the 1:1 has four objectives:

  • Collect feedback and gather information
  • Give coaching or work through “thorny” issues
  • Re-calibrate around important, but often not urgent, issues
  • Build the relationship

These conversations should NOT be purely tactical. They should take place at a regular cadence partially determined by the strength of your relationship with the teammate and their task relevant maturity on current work. There should be a document tracking key discussion topics. Last, I’ve embraced the 60 minute mantra of Grove as the longer conversation has been essential to going deep vs. staying superficial.

Ad Hoc Feedback

One of the most important jobs of a manager is to give feedback. When that feedback is critical this can be extremely challenging and feel quite unnatural, especially for newer managers.

I’ve found it essential however to:

  • Deliver the feedback as close to real time as possible
  • In private
  • Remember that tough feedback is not negative feedback. Your intent matters
  • Your team already knows and NOT giving feedback will bleed through those web of interactions you can’t control
  • You can use “can I give you some feedback” to prime the person that this is coming
  • Avoid the sh*t sandwich 
  • Your stars need this feedback as much, or more, than anyone

Some of this is definitely wrapped up in the Silicon Valley buzzword around radical candor (article 1 and article 2 discussing that):


This HBR article gives a nice list of additional reading.

One Team, One Dream

As we’ve discussed, your team is bigger than you.

Communication is the same. It happens with or without you. In fact, one of our interns recently admitted that he spent the entire summer looking to see if the team’s behavior changed when boss(es) left. He claims it didn’t.

One of the reasons, hopefully, that this is true is because we’ve spent time as a team articulating our mission, vision, and strategy. This can seem fluffy to some, but we all want to have a bigger purpose for why we show up and put our all into something. Finding that alignment and having that buy-in are worth trying to get to in any way possible.

So how do we define the core elements of mission, vision, and strategy?

  • Mission – Why are we here
  • Vision – Where do we want to get to
  • Strategy – How are we going to get there

One of the tools my executive coach left me with was a quick framework for facilitating this discussion with the team:


Working through this in a fun whiteboarding session led to some really interesting ideas about what our operations team is and what we hope to achieve:

Our unifying vision included things like:

  • “Instill the right way”
  • “Set (others) up for success”
  • Educate
  • Keep it real
  • Be the “oil in the machine”
  • “Remove friction”
  • Get sh*t done
  • Turn vision into reality
  • Unlock new sources of growth

From the whiteboarding session we narrowed it down our word cloud to four major categories that helped set a north star for the team:


Whatever your team’s north star, having one that everyone helped find creates alignment. That alignment drives subtle behaviors and shapes a shared identity. That shared identity helps create language and communication frameworks that puts everyone on the same page. If you don’t have that, I believe you know what your primary job is as a manager.

Start Early, Broadcast Out

You need to remember that communication starts before your team member ever joins. You must embed your personality and culture into the hiring process and ‘why’ of the team.

For example, this bullet in our job description has been cited by every successful hire we’ve made in the interview process:



At this point I’d be worried if someone didn’t cite getting sh*t done in an interview (in part because I’d wonder if they even read the description carefully and we’re a detail-oriented team).


Some Random Closing Thoughts on Communicating

There are some other tactical things we do that shape how we communicate and operate as a team. These include:

  • Working in two-week sprints – The Agile framework has shaped a lot of how we approach our work and talk about prioritization and project planning
  • Having a bi-weekly learning meeting – Twice a month someone on the team teaches something
  • Offsites – Take a lot of planning, but when executed well are very powerful
  • Daily Standups – We do two of these a week live, one on Hipchat/Slack, and one weekly recap check-in
  • Getting out of the office
  • Start-stop-continue is a powerful check-in

I talk much more about these in my tactical tips for managers post.

In closing I hope that these insights about our team practices have given you some food for thought when it comes to how your team works together. Nothing here is sacred, it is all about being explicit and iterative in unlocking your team’s capacity through better alignment and deeper understanding. I’d love to hear and experiment with what works for you.

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Last modified: August 19, 2018