Attention managers: we need to talk

When somebody decides to change employer, chances are that high on the list of reasons will be dissatisfaction with their immediate manager.

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Drill down a bit further and very often the critical issue is communication – specifically, the lack of it. Some managers don't consider it their job to 'chat' but workplace surveys regularly demonstrate one of the biggest workplace gripes is working for a manager who cannot, or will not, communicate.

"Candid communication requires respect, skill and courage such that technology should give way to more effective face-to-face interaction"
Dr Malcolm Johnson, General Manager professional development, Australian Institute of Management

One might assume anyone who works their way up through an organisation will possess the ability to string a few cogent sentences together. But one would be increasingly mistaken.

Whether it's to issue clear instructions, discuss performance or career prospects, counsel a wayward employee or motivate staff, many managers find it difficult to engage in conversation.

Moreover, managers who find conversation difficult, unnecessary or even a chore are almost certainly not going to be good listeners and it’s unlikely they will be particularly adept when it comes to 'soft' attributes such as empathy, consideration and interest.

Such inadequacies are not reserved for middle management. They can go all the way to the top.

A report by US management consultant DDI, Driving Workplace Performance Through High-Quality Conversations, provides a damning assessment of managers’ communication-based leadership behaviour.

Its global study of employee attitudes to management found in 49 per cent of cases respondents reported their managers only sometimes or never ask them for ideas about how to solve a problem and 45 per cent say their manager only sometimes or never provides sufficient feedback on performance.

When in conversations with their managers, the DDI survey found, only in 41 per cent of cases do managers ask questions (ie, engage) to ensure they better understand what is being said. And 36 per cent say their bosses only sometimes or never handle work conversations “efficiently”. True, that means 64 per cent of managers do, but when you consider the importance of those conversations, that’s a lot of damage being done in organisations simply because managers don’t know how to talk to their staff.

According to DDI, effective conversations at the leadership level are critical to a range workplace interactions, such as conducting team meetings, seeking input from stakeholders on key decisions, listening to customers, leading change, influencing the direction of a new structure, delegating tasks and assignments, and conducting performance discussions.

The fad of 'management by walking around', resurrected like the Walking Deadevery decade or so, generally doesn’t last too long because CEOs find their reservoir of small talk really doesn’t run very deep. CEOs trekking through open plan savannahs to receive first-hand feedback from employees is the corporate equivalent of a royal meet and greet. At least that’s how too many CEOs see it. Profound communication it is not.

There is one chief executive in a one-time blue chip who particularly comes to mind. I shall be as discreet as I can. Although by all accounts a most engaging conversationalist among his confreres, a people person he is not. Nor is self-awareness a strong suit.

So perhaps it is through a sense of noblesse oblige that he accepted his HR adviser’s counsel that it does “the troops” a great morale boost to be in his presence. But his beleaguered 2IC knows all too well when the boss weaves his way around the cubicles he invariably leaves in his wake a trail of destruction.

This particular leader of men and a few women, whatever else his qualities, has the unhappy knack of including insult, disdain and indifference in every utterance. It is not unknown for the said 2IC to spend considerable time restoring faith with disgruntled staff - and occasionally hosing down talk of resignation.

On the other hand, someone like Gerry Harvey doesn’t walk the floors of his Harvey Norman stores because his HR person tells him it’s a good idea, or because, heaven forbid, he read it in a management guru’s book. Harvey walks around his stores, talking to and really engaging with his staff, whether they’re cleaners, security guys or salespeople, as well as to his customers, for one simple reason: he wants to know what’s going on. Like most canny retailers – and canny CEOs for that matter – Harvey knows when you know your organisation and your market, the battle is half won.

Harvey may be the executive chairman of a publicly listed, multi-billion dollar business, but he remains at heart an entrepreneur. Successful entrepreneurs intuitively understand the necessity and power of communication – and that includes listening.

Many organisations still promote their managers on the basis of technical proficiency rather than seeking well-rounded individuals who have the attributes to manage in complex and demanding work environments. More to the point, these managers aren’t provided with the mentoring, training and development to ensure they have the interpersonal skills that complement their technical competence. Sooner or later their lack of communications skills will undermine their effectiveness as leaders. 

When communication between managers and their teams is compromised, it may appear outwardly the organisation is still functioning, that everyone is performing their allotted tasks and that objectives are being achieved. What is not so immediately obvious is that mediocrity sets in, tasks have to be done more than once before they’re done right, the desire to go the extra mile becomes the exception, and people who feel they are no longer valued or appreciated can’t wait to get another job.

In any workplace where there is massive change, the quality of communication between management and staff – particularly in the workplace where the actual changes take place – can make the difference between change being effectively implemented or a train wreck taking place. The ability of a manager to explain, motivate and encourage will test an organisation’s ability to adapt and grow whatever the competitive landscape.

When communication between managers and staff is not present, staff will be quick to fill the void with their own conclusions. And they won’t be positive. A survey released earlier this year by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Workplace Leadership found 75 per cent – 75 per cent! – believe their workplaces need better managers and leaders. Younger employees were far more likely to hold this view, the centre found.

The advent of powerful and pervasive social and workplace technologies and the increasing focus of communicating with employees via slick 'internal communication' channels, might appear to lessen the importance of conversation. But the workplace surveys suggest employees consider personal communication to be a – and possibly the – critical element of the overall communication mix. 

It is also likely true the spirit of constructive conversation – personal, warm, engaging, interested, genuine communication – infuses itself into the communications culture and tone of an organisation irrespective of the medium. 

Dr Malcolm Johnson, general manager of professional development at the Australian Institute of Management, says senior managers set the standard of communication behaviour and serve as a benchmark for less experienced managers. And technology is a poor stand-in for good old fashioned communication skills. 

“Candid communication requires respect, skill and courage such that technology should give way to more effective face-to-face interaction,” Dr Johnson says.

Leo D'Angelo-Fisher specialises in the practice and malpractice of management. In more than three decades as a business journalist he has worked for BRW, The Australian Financial Review and a range of other business magazines in Australia and Hong Kong. His sometimes acerbic observations of management and its fads has brought him a wide following. He blogs at

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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