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What you can do about poor management communication

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com

Most managers communicate poorly with their employees. For instance, a 2004 Melcrum survey found only 14% of PR managers and 11% of HR managers rated the operational managers in their organisation as “good” or “very good” at communicating. Obviously communication isn’t a high priority for those managers. But communication is always a high priority for their staff. What can you do to improve communication of your managers?

Emphasize research findings

Rather than making unsupported claims about the importance of internal communication, use facts to support your case. You can highlight research showing that companies that are good at communication clearly perform better. Remember significant research findings and refer to them in meetings, reports and communication strategies. Refer to this strategic information while you are interacting with others about more day-to-day communication tasks. This shows you have a strategic purpose in mind as the foundation for the daily tasks. And wherever you can, relate your communication activities to your organizational and divisional goals. You will need repetition to make an impact.

An instance of such research is a major survey conducted by international consulting firm, Watson Wyatt Worldwide in 2003, which showed that in the previous five years:

  • a significant improvement in communication effectiveness by firms was associated with a 30% increase in share market value
  • firms with better organizational communication earned shareholder returns nearly 50% higher than firms which communicated less effectively
  • organizations that communicated effectively were 50% more likely to report employee turnover rates below or significantly below those of their industry peers

Develop HR as a strong ally

Don’t fight a lonely battle – influence your HR manager to be a strong ally by working closely together on mutual internal issues. Use the opportunity to educate them on the value of good communication. Point out how good communication is central to a good corporate culture – and is an important means of the organization achieving its mission and goals. Refer to the Watson Wyatt study and similar studies as proof.

The communication function has a lot in common with the human resources function. Both functions are:

  • people-focused
  • misunderstood by the rest of the business
  • undervalued by many organizations
  • seen as a corporate overhead that could be the first to cut if times are tough
  • hard to provide measurable results
  • are in female-dominated professions, which can be a liability in organizations dominated by male management
  • being challenged to prove value
  • trying to operate at a strategic level

Why should you make the effort to cultivate a good working relationship with your HR manager? The benefits are:

  • more effective achievement of communication goals and objectives
  • more status within the organization – you will be perceived as someone who can readily cooperate with others and achieve outcomes
  • more value-creation for the organization
  • more opportunity to get involved in important strategic issues such as culture change and mergers
  • greater access to budgets for cross-functional projects
  • a chance to prove the worth of the communication function

The key is to ask your employees

It’s difficult to find and retain good staff these days, and senior managers are much more conscious of the need to treat employees well or lose them, especially in high-tech organizations. Therefore, go straight to the people – get the facts from staff to support your case by conducting a survey on employee communication. Senior managers are hard nosed and take notice of such facts.

Despite the fact that employees invariably report that management communication is one of the most important components of workplace satisfaction for them, it continues to be handled badly by managers. Too many managers just don't make the effort to improve their communication.

If your HR department conducts a regular annual employee survey, it would be easy to include questions about communication. Test the questions with a sample of staff to check if their understanding of your questions is accurate. A good survey will probe employees’ priorities and intentions to remain or leave the organization. The responses will show a correlation between poor communication and intentions to leave – a persuasive case to put to senior management!

Alternatively, you can conduct your own survey on communication. Choose your timing carefully so employees don’t get survey overload from being polled too often. You need to include questions additional to the ones about managerial communication, or probably you wouldn’t get management approval to conduct the survey. They are not masochistic – they are not going approve a survey that is entirely about their inadequacies!

Even in high-tech organizations you will find employees literally want to see more of their senior managers. An abundance of electronic channels can’t replace face-to-face communication. The survey will reinforce this. All the same, you can ask the respondents about their communication preferences, which obviously will include electronic techniques.

Take the results of the survey to the executive committee or ask an onside senior manager to do this to persuade management to be more proactive with their staff communication. The results will make management take notice.

Speak to HR about building communication behaviors into the key performance indicators of all managers.

If you don’t have the resources to conduct a full-scale (quantitative) survey of communication, you can conduct your own 2-3 (qualitative) focus groups comprising about eight employees in each location at minimal cost. Invite a cross-section of reasonably articulate and forthright staff, or you can ask HR’s assistance to identify names. If you aren’t able to attend the other locations, you can supply the questions to HR in the other places and ask them nicely to run the focus groups for you. You could also try a teleconference, but their value is limited because you need to see people’s faces for this activity.

The focus group participants are likely to point out revealing examples and common threads in the shortcomings of management communication. Use these results to hammer managers about their communication performance. Either record the sessions or make notes of some of the best quotes to put to management. But first guarantee to them their identities will never be revealed to management!

Identify communication competencies needed in your organization

International experience has shown that a good set of managerial communication competencies is needed as a reference point in most workplaces, but a 2004 Melcrum survey found only 29% of respondents’ organizations defined communication competencies for their managers. Win the support of your HR manager to insert these competencies into managerial job descriptions to replace the usual bland, generalized “good communication skills.” Core interpersonal competencies for managers can be measured by surveying subordinates about whether their manager: 

  1. Satisfactorily provides direction to employees
  2. Adequately demonstrates active listening skills
  3. Effectively motivates employees
  4. Seeks feedback from employees
  5. Gives constructive feedback to subordinates
  6. Acts on feedback from employees
  7. Effectively manages conflict with and between their staff

Arrange interpersonal communication training

If senior managers place a higher priority on better, specific managerial communication behavior, with accountability measures built in, a more productive workplace will be achieved.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a widespread assumption similar to driving skills: in the same way that almost no one admits to being a bad driver, almost no manager will admit to being a poor communicator. Consider the proof – a 2002 survey of 1,104 employees in organizations around the United States, found that 86% said their bosses thought they were good communicators, but only 17% said their bosses actually communicated effectively. Training required!

Most workplaces need interpersonal communication skills training to be initiated, but it appears to be neglected in the training programs of many organizations. Suitable training can be organized for managers to address their weak communication competencies. You may need to initiate the training.

Measure managers’ communication skills

You can measure managers’ communication skills in various ways:

  • Measure the extent to which they meet the activity targets such as holding regular staff briefing meetings, and notifying staff face-to-face or by email of various workplace changes.
  • Conduct ‘transmission checks’ – simple surveys of staff to see what they know about information their manager has been asked to pass on to them.
  • Review the responses to simple questionnaires to check how their staff rate their manager/supervisor’s communication skills.
  • Survey how well their staff understand the organization’s mission or goals and where they fit in to the organization.
  • Check whether they ask their staff about ways they can improve their communication with them such as being more consultative, conveying staff requests upwards, asking for feedback etc.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.

 

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