Teaching Students to Adapt to Change Makes Them Better Communicators and Professionals

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In the past few years, the US workforce has gone through a shift in social norms, especially around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Citizens are demanding change through anti-racist work and increased inclusion in all areas of life, including the workplace. Professionalism is like any other part of society—it is not static but evolves over time. Typically, standards of professionalism change as areas of society change. One of the biggest shifts we saw in the 20th century was the globalization of the workforce. Professional standards must continue to evolve as social norms and institutions do. One of the most sought-after skills in the workplace is effective communication, and this can be a bit of a moving target as professional communication standards evolve. Students need to be prepared to adapt to change in communication standards, and we can give them the tools to do that.

A Time of Change

We are currently in a mercurial state in the workforce, not only because of changing practices like increased telework but also because of increased awareness around microaggressions. Now more than ever, students need to be aware of the language they are using, including their verbal and written communication as well as their body language and self-representation. What were once considered standard forms of communication are now starting to evolve to include more sensitive standards around diversity, equity, and inclusion, all of which can be triggering topics in the US today.

In a recent blog post, TK Kelly provided excellent examples of how to address the evolving standards of language in the workplace. Along with the examples she provides, students and those educating them need also to be aware of the ways nonverbal communication and other professional standards are shifting. Those standards include things like professional dress, workflow preferences, and understanding how to use different forms of communication technology correctly as more workplaces exist remotely.

In addition to large-scale changes, we also see that each organization, business, or agency has their own set of standards around professional communication and behavior, adding an extra layer of complexity to the fresh graduate’s career journey. In times of tumultuous change when standards of behavior are shifting and sometimes unclear, how can students navigate their new or expected roles and what tools can we provide them to do so?  

Listen, Read, Observe

We often focus on teaching the action-based forms of communication—speaking, writing, and presenting. When entering a workplace where the culture is new and professional standards are evolving, a graduate or new employee needs tools for listening, reading, and observing. Active communication is important, but being receptive to others’ communication is just as important. One of the best ways to feel out a new workplace is to spend time reading colleagues’ writing, listening to the language and content in conversations, and observing body language and standards of dress. As an educator, you can give students these tools before they graduate. You can teach them analytical reading skills. You can encourage them to read work published in their industry and pick out the writing strategies used in those publications. You can explain how those pieces can serve as models for their own writing and encourage them to do the same with internal written communication at their future organization.

If you have a presentation requirement in your courses, teach students listening as well as speaking skills. Encourage them to pay attention to their classmates’ tone and style, language choices, and body language when applicable. Some of your students may already be employed in full- or part-time jobs. Connect what you’re doing in the classroom to their current roles. Ask your students to consider these questions: How often do your co-workers use slang terms? How loudly are they speaking? Which parts of their personal lives do they share or not share? What presentation tool is used—PowerPoint or something else? What language is used in presentations? What assumptions do presenters make about their audience (you)?

Educators can work with students to help them hone their reading and observation skills. You can teach students to do a careful study of a situation before jumping in and potentially making big mistakes. Of course, you want to promote leadership and engagement in students, but leadership and engagement should come from a foundation of knowledge about—yep, you guessed it—subject, audience, and purpose.

Discuss Values, Role, and Purpose

When it comes to adapting to changes related to diversity and inclusion, everyone—no matter their level of professional experience—should double-check their assumptions. Examine your own implicit bias and encourage your students to do so as well. You can provide them tools such as the Harvard Implicit Association Test. Encourage students to embrace their own diversity too. Their diversity can be related to a specific identity they hold, but it can also be related to their diverse sets of professional skills and workflow.

Many new graduates don’t understand their role in an organization, especially if they are stepping into an entry-level position. Their lack of understanding can show in their communication and behavior. Employers hire people who have skills to move the organization forward in its mission and long-term strategy. Teach students communication and professionalism skills that empower them to represent themselves as people who will contribute toward that long-term strategy. Too often we hear stories of new hires acting like they own the place or expecting the organization to meet their needs instead of the opposite. When employees communicate that they are capable of adapting to the organization’s culture, rather than expecting the culture to adapt to them, they show that they are strong team members. A little humility can go a long way in representing themselves as team players and assets to the organization. An important communication skill we can discuss with our students is the power of respecting the chain of command in their future positions.

That being said, there may be situations where it is appropriate to step outside that organization’s cultural norm. To know when this is an option, a new employee has to do some self-reflection. Your students will likely have this experience at some point in their professional lives, and you can help them prepare for it. Take time in your work with students to discuss what they value in an employer and what their personal limitations are for cultural fit in a place of employment. Not every organization will be a good fit and that’s ok. Students need to know that if their first job isn’t what they’ve dreamed of, it’s not the end of the road. Emphasize the importance of keeping their communication professional in their current role while they apply for other positions. You can teach students to use solutions-focused language and problem-solving strategies so they will feel confident with their professionalism even in less-than-ideal situations.

Using Technology Appropriately

One of the most important skills any professional needs today is knowing how to use business communication technology appropriately. As more workplaces move to remote offices and telework, understanding what to communicate through which channel grows in importance. For example, sending an updated HR manual through text message would not be appropriate, but sending a text message to find coverage for a shift is.

Don’t assume that your students are coming into the classroom with this knowledge in hand. They need to be coached on how to communicate across all these channels, and you are the perfect person to coach them on these skills. Online college coursework is a ripe opportunity for students to advance their communication skills with appropriate communication technologies. As their coaches, we can help them know how take advantage of the technology and our expertise.

Summing Up

To recap, help students understand that standards of professionalism will continue to evolve, even within a single organization. Teaching our students to be adaptable to change makes them better communicators and prepares them for long-term career success.

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