Managing Communication: Messages to Employees May Not Be So Obvious

Communication, that essential element for any manager, is often not as clear as we might think. Two primary goals of a line manager’s communication are to convey the organization’s goals and strategies, and to give clear directions and rationale for employees. The ultimate objective is to align the team’s work to the overall corporate strategy and lead to positive outcomes. Bidirectional communication includes listening to employees and treating what they say seriously, providing opportunities for productive discussions. Yet the Harvard Business Review (HBR) reports that a myth in strategy execution is that “communication equals understanding,” citing that only “55% of the middle managers we have surveyed can name even one of their company’s top five priorities.”

From the time a worker is elevated to manager or a position of authority—often without the support of management and leadership training—a certain distortion in perception occurs. Fully 91% of employees surveyed in a recent HBR poll report that communication issues prevent executives from leading effectively. By being aware of this shift, managers can reflect upon communication challenges and address problems before they become too damaging to the manager-employee relationship. Here, we discuss some key communication challenges and offer suggestions for avoiding these pitfalls.

A Manager’s Perception

Many managers fall victim to some level of power poisoning, often by forgetting what it’s like to be the employee. This drop in empathy, according to increasing authority, has been detailed in numerous management studies. Though this progression is quite normal—it’s only natural to pay more attention to the boss than to the intern—the result is often that leaders miss out on the true perspective of subordinates when they need it most.

This so-called toxic tandem, outlined by Stanford’s Robert Sutton, is the tendency for managers to become less empathetic to subordinates while the employees more closely examine the boss’s words and actions. Leaders can sidestep the pitfalls of the toxic tandem by increasing their understanding of how messages are received by subordinates.

For instance, when managers have a big announcement or change to make, they have already processed the scenarios, considered alternatives, made decisions, and accepted the reality of the situation. By understanding that employees will also need time to process the situation, and that drastic changes may mean part of the message is missed in the initial delivery, an empathetic leader will repeat simple elements of the message over time to ensure that the most important takeaways from the discussion sink in.

Manager to Employee Exchanges

As previously mentioned, the downward communication from manager to employee is not always a smooth path. Frequently, managers are smart, well-educated leaders who aren’t as adept at delivering information as they may hope.

A manager who has specific ideas about how a task or project should be completed ought to provide that information as a guideline for the employee, especially when the guidelines determine how the employee’s performance will be judged. It is better to avoid assuming that the guidelines are immediately obvious or that the message is completely clear.

Welcome employee questions that seek clarity – the more the topic is discussed, the more likely the employee is to understand the perspective and complete the project to everyone’s mutual satisfaction. Consider that an employee who asks numerous questions may not fully understand the task as initially outlined, so the questions are seeking to clear up ambiguities rather than questioning the manager’s expertise or authority.

Remember that when the expected outcomes are not obtained, the manager’s message to the employee may not have been effective. Reflect on how the toxic tandem might be at play in the delivery and reception of the message—a different approach or discussing the rationale and context for the work in deeper detail may resolve the disconnect between what a manager thinks was said and what the employee heard and interpreted.

Employee to Manager Exchanges

When seeking information from employees, be aware that the framing of the question often predetermines the response that the manager will receive.

For example, a common mistake is asking leading questions, such as “Don’t you think…?” When the employee privately disagrees, he or she is faced with either giving the answer that the boss wants despite personal opinions, or giving an answer that conflicts with the boss’s thinking. Many employees will want to avoid the discomfort and risk of outwardly disagreeing with the boss; the employee is more likely to give the former response, leading to the manager missing out on the true measure of the situation.

Therefore, it’s better to avoid leading questions and instead ask broad, open-ended questions when seeking opinions and information. This allows employees the opportunity to express more honest opinions and increase their sense of ownership in the discussion. Examples of open-ended questions include: What do you think about this new initiative? How did your client meeting go? Tell me about your project. Proper open-ended questions cede control of the conversation to the responding employee, whose full answer will draw upon his or her own knowledge or opinions.

If you are experiencing particular challenges in communicating with your employees, we recommend that you consider how your perspective may differ from that of your subordinates. The message that you think is perfectly clear may not take into account the time and additional context that employees need to reach similar conclusions. The consideration of these communication scenarios can improve the manager-employee relationship, and ultimately, improve performance and outcomes.

Amanda Y. Hendrix
Expert Consultant, The Wilbanks Consulting Group