Communication is not a soft skill. It has a direct effect on business outcomes far more often than is usually acknowledged, and it matters in roles which are not typically considered communication roles.

In fact, the idea that communication skills are critical in some roles and simply a nice-to-have in others can be a risk to successful teaming. Making the effort to train all team members, regardless of their functional role, in good communication skills can pay off in fewer missed deadlines, more successful projects and happier team members.

Communication is an occupational requirement

A senior project lead at a global company was charged with creating a company-wide web resource, coordinating with high-level subject matter experts within the organization. He assembled a talented team. As his vision for the project grew and changed across feedback cycles, he repeatedly redirected his team’s efforts without explaining the reasons why.

After a couple of directional changes, team members began to get confused. Some began to feel demoralized when the tasks they had completed were not acknowledged and suddenly no longer part of the project. They began to feel that their current work would meet the same fate, and the wind went out of their sails. Quality dropped and the team fell behind schedule.

The group reached the end of the pilot period with a very uneven product, and the next phase was not funded. Leadership blamed lack of vision. In fact, the team leader had a strong vision that evolved according to what he learned every week in user testing (he just failed to communicate that vision with his team). A promising project was scrapped because of poor communication, and no one even knew it. Seen in this light, communication is a critical occupational requirement rather than just a helpful soft skill, even on projects that are essentially technical in nature.

Training for successful communication

Many organizations have a blind spot when it comes to communication. With the growth in virtual teaming, communication within teams has become a critical organization priority. When teams are global, the need is for help with communication is even greater. These recommendations can help get teams trained for successful communication:

1. Be sure to include team members who are in technical roles in team communication training. Technical staff has traditionally been treated as somehow separate from the rest of the organization, important for their skills but often not fully integrated into the business. As technology becomes ever more important in business activities, there’s less justification for treating tech staff differently. Technical staff often learns communication skills on the fly and can benefit from structured guidance in this area.

2. Team communication practices are often the result of the project manager’s individual preferences. It’s worthwhile looking across the organization to identify best practices and introducing those to all staff. In addition to improving communication within teams, this practice can also help staff make the transition from one team to another as they move onto new projects.

3. Communication training for teams should highlight the benefits of good communication and the risks of poor communication. Especially for team members who aren’t used to thinking about communication, providing a real-world context, with examples, can help trainees see the relevance of the work.

Teams are only as good as their communication. Organizations that treat communication as a nice-to-have soft skill may be setting their teams up for failure.