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How to fix chronically bad communication by managers

01 Jun, 2020 Internal communication, Interpersonal communication, Leadership and managerial communication

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

Most managers communicate poorly with their employees. Managerial communication is extremely important, but Gallup consultants report that few managers have the talent to achieve excellence: “Gallup’s research reveals that about one in 10 people possess the talent to manage.” Although many people have some of the necessary traits, few have the unique combination of talent needed to help a team achieve excellence in a way that significantly improves a company’s performance.” The firm’s research found that companies fail to choose the candidate with the right talent for the job 82% of the time. Since about 70% of an individual’s engagement is driven by their manager, this has resulted in severely low worldwide employee engagement.

Obviously communication isn’t a high priority for those managers. But communication is always a high priority for their direct reports. What can you do to improve communication of your managers?

Emphasize research findings

Rather than making unsupported claims about the importance of internal communication, it is important to 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.

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.

Research shows good communication leads to high levels of employee engagement

Employee engagement is a key factor in employee productivity and therefore organizational performance. Gallup workforce surveys have consistently found since 2000 that only around one third of US employees are ‘engaged’ or ‘actively engaged’ in their work. Engaged employees are defined as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. According to Gallup research, “managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores.” Further Gallup finding:Consistent communication is connected to higher engagement.”

Image: Harvard Business Review, 24 June 2015

The most effective types of internal communication

Professor Ana Tkalac Verčič says in her 2016 article, “Exploring the Connection Between Internal Communication and Employee Engagement” that “what matters most is that internal communication and employee engagement ‘feed’ each other in a continuous virtual circle.” In other words, effective IC helps build EE levels, and vice versa – higher EE levels helps to make IC more effective.

What type of internal communication is strongest? Verčič & Vokić (2018) conducted a survey of 104 participants to investigate “[the] relationship between:

  • internal communication satisfaction (e.g. feedback, communication with superiors, horizontal communication, informal communication, corporate information, communication climate, communication media, and communication during meetings), and
  • employee engagement (specifically work engagement; vigor, dedication and absorption).”

They said “our study confirmed that internal communication satisfaction has a significant role in high employee engagement,” pointing out:

“Three aspects demonstrated a greater importance: satisfaction with feedback, informal communication, and communication during meetings, and thus are the most relevant internal communication satisfaction dimensions for employee engagement. The study confirmed that feedback, open channels of communication, communication between supervisors and employees, and sharing information with employees are vital enablers of engagement.”

Verčič & Vokić go on to advocate that organizations should:

  • communicate the importance of the broad set of drivers for enhancing employee engagement, namely satisfaction with feedback, informal communication, and communication during meetings, and
  • incorporate engagement into strategic planning to encourage organizational support and belief in the importance of engagement as an organizational value rather than a short-term initiative.

5 important communication skills for all managers

Expert internal communication (IC) specialist David Grossman wrote this valuable post in early 2020 about the key skills all managers should learn and use:

  1. Set the context

Every employee comes into the workplace with his or her own context, a mixture of culture, memories, upbringing, and experiences. Part of the role of a manager is to create a shared vision for the entire team. Make sure employees understand the big picture and how they fit in. Constantly communicate the ‘why’ behind the business plan: why the plan is important, the role your team plays and the critical role individual employees play.

Every time you communicate with an employee, answer these questions:

  • “What’s in it for me?”
  • “Why should I care?”

Link what’s happening at the larger organization level to your department or business unit level in real time, and make a point of talking about how employees’ work relates to the company’s success.

When you fail to set context and paint the larger picture, you contribute to the silo mentality, one in which employees can’t see why their individual contributions matter.

  1. Repeat, repeat, repeat

One common communication mistake is the ‘check-off-the-box’ mentality. People see communication as a one-time event. They say things like, “I sent out an email” or “I already communicated that.” Sound familiar?

Research shows that many of us need to hear a message multiple times before we get it. Communication isn’t something you can check off a to-do list. Building trust and credibility is about communicating a message consistently across several touch points. When employees hear the same message repeated, they’re more likely to take notice, believe it, and most importantly, act on it.

  1. Create dialogue and check for understanding

Every time you communicate, there’s an opportunity to find out if your audience gets what you’re saying. The job isn’t done when the message is sent. Make sure the message is really heard and understood.

Create opportunities for conversations that establish understanding and spread knowledge and expertise.

Ask your audience to paraphrase what they heard. If you want to know if your audience understands the ‘what’ and ‘why’ behind a strategy, ask them, “What challenges and opportunities do you see with what I’ve explained?” If you want to know whether they heard your key messages or need additional context or detail, ask them, “What are your key takeaways from the information I just shared?”

Building opportunities for questions and dialogue into your communication helps you measure in real time how well employees receive your messages.

  1. Listen

To make your communication effective, you need to learn what’s working well, what’s not, and most importantly, how things can be better. That involves listening—and listening some more.

Ask broad, probing, open-ended questions, which allow the listener to take the conversation in a direction they choose, such as:

  • “Help me understand…”
  • “How do you envision…”
  • “What other strategic alternative did you consider?”

Ask employees for feedback:

  • Think about in what environment employees would be most comfortable sharing input (feedback channels can be informal or formal)
  • Share your motivation for getting feedback
  • Engage people fully and listen to what they have to say

Follow up on their ideas so they know their voice matters. What you do with feedback speaks volumes to employees:

  • Let them know, “I like that idea…how might we put that into place?”
  • If you’re not planning to implement their idea, it’s important to tell him or her why.

No matter whether you plan to implement ideas or not, close the loop with employees. Showing appreciation for their feedback lets them know their thoughts are valued.

  1. Use calls-to-action

As you communicate, think about what actions you’re trying to drive. Your communications should help move your audience to action. What do you want employees to do as a result of your communication?

Clearly communicate the actions you want them to take. Be specific and give examples. Without a call-to-action, your message is just information.

Remote teams

Technology is changing every industry in the world. A 2018 study found 70% of professionals worked remotely – telecommuting – at least one day a week, while 53% worked remotely for at least half of the week. This was before the dramatic global impact of coronavirus from 2020. The proportion of remote workers rose quickly then, and much of that trend will remain over time.

Remote work means that most business unit communication is what the managers are providing. If an email tone is too harsh, there is no facial expression to soften the sting. If your question during a phone conference feels abrupt, there might not be video that shows you literally leaning into the conversation in interest instead of a perceived attack. For this reason, videoconferencing may be ideal and should be encouraged.

Much of our language is nonverbal. When managers are forced to limit the nonverbal cues available to their direct reports, they increase the chance for miscommunication, defensiveness and conflict. Managers need to communicate with their teams in several ways and through multiple mediums to keep expectations clear, to reinforce priorities, and to help understand and address barriers to maximizing their team’s work while they are away from the office. Gallup consultants in 2020 recommended:

“Managers should ask how [remote] employees prefer to be contacted. Are text messages OK for urgent issues, or is that an invasion of privacy or stressful? Do they have everything they need to videoconference comfortably? Managers should also proactively schedule weekly check-ins with their teams, replacing the informal office conversations that relationships are made of.

Owl Labs reported in 2019 their survey findings that the biggest challenges for remote workers during remote meetings and ‘hybrid’ meetings (mix of remote and office attendees) are interruptions/being talked over (67%) and IT issues during meetings (59%). Managers need to be aware of these limitations and act to minimize their occurrence.

Ask employees about communication

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 in a post-coronavirus world. Therefore, go straight to the people – get the facts from staff to support your case by conducting an IC survey. Senior managers are hard nosed and take notice of such facts.

Include communication questions in employee surveys

Also, employee surveys overwhelmingly reveal that staff are unhappy with the quality of management communication with them. If your HR department conducts a regular annual employee survey with no coverage or little coverage of IC, it would be easy to ensure IC questions are included. 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!

Conduct your own communication survey

Alternatively, you can conduct your own IC survey. 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! What’s more, take note that only “13% of employees strongly agree the leadership of their organization communicates effectively with the rest of the organization,” according to the 2017 Gallup State of the American Workplace report, so be careful about questions on the communication of top management.

Even in high-tech organizations you will find employees literally want to see more of their senior managers. Industry surveys consistently show this. They also reveal good communication is absolutely vital to good levels of employee engagement in organizations. 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.

Conduct your own focus groups

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 8 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 Melcrum survey found only a third 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. 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. These questionnaires can be as simple as rating their boss on their communication skills on a scale of 1 to 10.
  • Survey how well their staff understand the organization’s mission or goals and how their daily work fits into better organizational performance.
  • 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

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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