How you can improve managers’ communication skills
From my observation, about 60% of corporate public relations effort is devoted to internal communication because good communication is at the heart of every good workplace. The most important workplace communication is about necessary change.
Despite all the emphasis on electronic communication these days, the most frequent and important means of workplace communication is still face-to-face. What’s more, studies have shown that communication is the most common activity of management. Managers typically spend 60-80% of their time in operational communication. In large part, communication is their work – mainly face-to-face in meetings, or by telephone or email.
Managers are found to be confident and know their business, but are poor at managing and representing their own staff. The biggest problem areas are reported to be managers’ skills at communicating upwards the views and concerns of their team, managers not acting as leaders, and not knowing their employees’ needs.
Respondents blamed the managers for the problems because they said the managers didn’t make the effort to communicate even though they had the time. This leads to the situation as the Gallup organization noted in its State of the American Workplace Report in 2017, that consistently only one third (33.0% in 2017) of the US workforce is engaged at work. Being concerned about change is a significant factor in the low level of engagement.
Unfortunately, management policies tend to allow communication problems to develop. More than half of organizations give no communication training to any level of manager.
The three main barriers to rewarding and recognizing effective communication have been:
- Lack of a method to measure communication performance.
- The organizational culture didn’t include recognizing communication as a core competency for managers.
- A lack of buy-in from senior management to make communication a performance measure.
But as a PR manager, you can hardly place all the blame at the feet of your operational managers – because the problem is partly of your own making! It is your job to push for communication competencies to be defined and measured, and it is your job to initiate communication training for managers.
Some ways to improve managers’ workplace communication
Good communication skills are not just the realm of PR people.
The PR department provides a support service to management, but this service isn’t a substitute for people who may lack the necessary communication skills. Managers and other leaders need to develop and use their own communication skills to be effective in their work and their relationships with others. They can’t fall back on the PR department to do their communication for them, even though some people continue to think that the PR department is responsible in general terms for all formal organizational communication. They don’t realize that every manager needs to take the responsibility for communicating within their own sphere of activities and especially with their own staff.
The job descriptions of almost all managers and supervisors include good communication skills as an essential component because everyone knows that good leadership depends on good communication. For example, ‘highly developed communication and negotiation skills’, ‘strong communication skills’, ‘effective communication skills’ are common.
This is fine, but what happens next?
- In what way are good communication skills necessary to being a good manager?
- What actually are good communication skills?
- Who should the skills be important to?
- How should communication skills be measured?
Set up communication performance agreements
Most managers are poor communicators, but since communication is largely intangible and often not reinforced as a priority by senior management, poor communicators are largely unaccountable.
How can the managers be accountable? What can be done to improve their application of communication skills?
One answer is that good communication activities can be built into the performance requirements that most managers and supervisors have these days to cover their day-to-day work responsibilities. These practices can be measured in various ways.
The performance management agreements of these people should include acceptable targets and measures of communication activities. You can advise the HR department on suitable activity targets and measurement processes to set for managers.
For instance, the performance agreement for one divisional general manager included the following activities (the dates have been changed:
- Conduct a communication audit of managers and staff in the division by 15 December.
- Develop an internal communication strategy by 31 March.
- Prepare a stakeholder relations strategy by 1 July.
- Undertake an attitude survey of medium and high priority external stakeholder groups by 30 June [the following year].
Communication skills training
You can arrange training for managers on interpersonal communication skills, which should include topics such as:
- How to measure the quality of your personal communication.
- Recognize barriers to good communication.
- Develop behaviors to enhance your working relationships.
- Understand the importance of non-verbal communication.
- How to develop active listening skills.
- How to deal with difficult people.
- How best to give and receive feedback.
Communication activities could include:
- conducting an annual communication audit of each manager’s area of responsibility
- conducting an annual stakeholder attitude survey;
- holding a periodic workshop or team session on staff communication;
- holding regular face-to-face team briefings for the staff who report directly to the managers (their ‘direct reports’);
- producing a regular news sheet or informal email newsletter for their staff, depending on the number of people in their area of responsibility;
- establishing a hotline in which staff can telephone them directly about any concerns or suggestions;
- setting aside a regular available time for staff to see them about any concerns;
- conducting regular work progress review meetings;
- regular informal review meetings with staff members rather than the standard formal quarterly or six monthly performance review;
- organizing a minimum number of staff recognition activities within their area.
But what and how should managers communicate?
Supporting and leading change of one kind or another is generally the main aim of internal communication. Below are the recommended components of good managerial change communication, according to Prosci change management specialists:
- Use the preferred senders (top manager and immediate supervisor) to deliver the messages about change.
- Answer the questions, “Why is this change happening?” and “What is the risk of not changing?”
- Answer the question, “What’s in it for me (WIIFM)?”
- Resist the urge to communicate through the change project team
- Use face-to-face communication as the main means of communication
- Repeat key messages 5-7 times via different channels
- Create opportunities for two-way communication – listen to concerns
- Prepare all the communicators to deliver effective communications including training
- Find effective ways to reach your audience – ask them what they prefer
- Using assessment tools to evaluate the effectiveness of messaging.
Measuring managers’ communication skills
Managers’ communication skills can be measured in various ways:
- Measure the extent to which they meet the types of activity targets outlined above;
- 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’s communication skills, as below;
- Survey how well their staff understand the organization’s mission or goals and where they fit in to the organization.
Staff ratings of their supervisor’s or manager’s communication skills
One effective way to rate the communication skills of supervisors or managers is to ask their staff to respond to a questionnaire containing questions such as these:
- My manager genuinely listens to me when I speak to him/her.
- My manager tells me about important things happening in the organization.
- My manager communicates clearly to me what his expectations of me are.
- My manager consults with all appropriate team members before he makes important decisions.
- My manager communicates team member views and concerns up the line effectively.
- My manager acts appropriately as a leader in the organization.
Staff ratings of supervisors or managers’ communication skills can quickly be calculated and summarized from the responses to the questionnaire. Notice the statements are about behavior rather than merely about attitudes. It is much easier to change observable behavior than underlying attitudes.
Ideally, this type of survey would be conducted across your organization. Then the results could be tabulated into a table comparing all the managers’ results. The important thing then is to circulate the table to all managers and if possible discuss in a meeting in which they are all present. This will unleash powerful competitive peer pressure among the managers to do better next time.
The above measures relate to outputs rather than results. Results are really what matters, and simple measurement techniques can provide the mechanism to improve operational results. You can take the initiative and achieve impressive results by using measurement techniques to identify operational communication blockages and reach solutions that clearly improve profitability of the area.
One clear and simple question forces change in management communication
US change communication expert, TJ Larkin, gives this great example of how communication can be used as a powerful force to change behavior.
A company operated 8 manufacturing plants, each with about 1,000 employees and a similar structure. Each manager had 8 supervisors reporting to him. The communication of the managers was tested through a one-question questionnaire asking each supervisor to evaluate their manager’s communication.
The questionnaire said:
“Please circle one number that best describes the quality of communication of your manager.” (Number from 1 [poor] to 10 [excellent]. )
The plant scores ranged from 6.0 to 7.6. However, within each plant the individual department managers’ scores varied dramatically from 3.0 to 8.8.
Results were published in a booklet showing the average score for each plant and a bar chart for each plant showing the average score for each department manager at the plant. The booklet was distributed to all supervisors, department managers, plant managers – and the CEO. The CEO made it clear that low-scoring managers were not to be scolded or punished. He wanted to see improvement. Praise and blame would happen six months later when the evaluation would be repeated.
Two weeks after publishing the results, 100 randomly selected supervisors were phoned and asked for any assessment of effects. More than 73% said communication had significantly improved. The most frequently mentioned effects, accounting for about 90% of mentioned changes, were:
- Managers started having lunch almost every day with supervisors.
- Managers started daily rounds, checking in with supervisors for a few minutes asking about problems or questions.
- Many managers started operating from a desk moved onto the shop floor rather than from their offices in the management suite.
The managers did exactly what was required to improve communication with supervisors (and therefore productivity). Not one manager began a departmental newsletter, put up posters, called in trainers to help with team building, created a consultative committee, installed quality circles or started a suggestion scheme.
The results had landed like a bomb. Never before had managers been evaluated by subordinates, and never had any evaluation been shared with so many employees. The CEO and supervisors thought the evaluation was great. The plant managers hated it so much they called a meeting and unanimously recommended to the CEO that the consultants never be used again!
You can initiate this powerful single question in any workplace. Ideally, it would be used to compare results from one manager’s area with others, but it would work in a single workplace as well. Just ask the question. You will set the ball rolling for better results!