From the Middle Down

Proper training is critical for managing good internal communications.

What do many workplaces have in common with Paul Newman in the 1967 classic, Cool Hand Luke? As the prison captain in the movie so eloquently put it, "What we've got here is failure to communicate."

The effects of poor communication are as evident as a water-main break: high rates of employee turnover, reduced productivity, increased employee stress and illness that can subsequently lead to higher health insurance costs. Add to all that the fact that employees are being asked to work harder and longer hours — often with fewer resources — and you have a recipe for a toxic workplace, says Cynthia Kyriazis, a time-management and productivity consultant at Productivity Partners Inc. in Overland Park, Kan.

"There's an awful lot of discussion around engagement and disengagement of employees these days, because employers are expecting more from them ... and there's concern about a mass employee exodus if the economy improves," she says. "How you communicate is critical because it impacts employees' self-esteem.

"If you aren't motivating them or communicating well with them, and just treating them like workhorses and not acknowledging when they do something well or go the extra mile for a colleague or a customer, it makes them wonder why they're staying at their job. Or often times, they second-guess themselves, and think (they're not getting praise because) they're not working hard enough. Or that they're going to lose their job. Or that they're in the wrong kind of job."

Middle managers are key

Years ago, respected management guru Peter Drucker pointed out that the reason for most employee problems is middle managers that communicate poorly with employees. To that end, Kyriazis notes that these "middle men" play a critical role in any organization's efforts at improving communication.

"They need to be able to approach employees and communicate with them in ways that don't demean them, but help them get their job done," Kyriazis says. "They also need to acknowledge when an employee does something smarter, better or faster."

Part and parcel to that is a simple but effective rule of thumb any manager should follow: Praise employees in public if possible, but correct errors in private. If nothing else, however, managers should go to the employee's work station, desk or office — not ask the employee to come to the manager's office — to personally offer a verbal pat on the back.

Why? In some surveys, employees say the number one thing that motivates them is having their boss come to their work station and tell them what a great job they did on a project. "As a motivator or a reward, money is rarely in the top five in surveys," Kyriazis says. "It's not always about money or bonuses."

Set clear expectations

Another must for effective communication: Set clear expectations for projects and assignments. That includes deadlines, budget details, the end goal, who will be involved and anything else that might impact the employee. And don't forget periodic follow-ups to be sure the project is progressing and the employee is getting the resources and support to help them accomplish the assignment, she says.

In addition, top-down communication is no longer acceptable. Years ago, it was assumed — especially by Baby Boomers — that a supervisor would dictate what an employee needed to do and how they should go about doing it, with no questions asked. These days, not so much — especially when managers supervise younger employees, who are used to contributing input and ideas.

"You need to ask some open-ended questions ... help them feel like they've been heard," Kyriazis says. "It needs to be a conversation, not a one-way dialogue."

Speaking of one-way communication, many managers mistake modern technology — such as email, Twitter, smartphones, text messaging and the like — for effective communication. In reality, when it comes to establishing goals or outlining the parameters of a project, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting, Kyriazis says.

"I know people sometimes are 'meetinged' to death, but you can't run a department through just email," she notes. "Generally speaking, technology usually enables a bad communicator to keep communicating badly."

Kyriazis says delegating duties also can help managers improve communications. How? First of all, employees generally crave opportunities to grow beyond the strict confines of their job, and will appreciate when managers offer such opportunities. Moreover, handing off some responsibilities that a manager knows an employee can handle will create a stronger bond of trust between a manager and an employee.

"New managers are afraid of losing their jobs, so they tend to micromanage, which doesn't build engagement or delegation or communication with employees, or develop them professionally," she says.

Training is critical

Kyriazis concedes that the basics of good communication are essentially simple — no brain-surgery skills required. Yet poor communication still hampers many organizations from achieving their goals. She attributes part of that to employees who, due to layoffs and other trying work conditions related to the recession and budget woes, are promoted quickly without any training in basics, such as communication or delegating.

It's even more difficult in organizations that employ large numbers of specialists who technically are very good at what they do, but never received any guidance regarding so called "soft skills," such as communication, listening, negotiating and so forth. As such, it's imperative that organizations take time to properly train managers about the finer points of communication, she says.

"It's difficult, because in this economic climate, dollars for training and coaching managers get cut in budgets," Kyriazis points out. "I see it in organizations ranging from non-profit groups to small businesses to Fortune 500 companies.

"It takes a concerted effort, too, not just telling a manager to go to a junior college and take a class," she continues. "Management then needs to ask employees who receive training for a report on what they learned, and then watch and listen to them and see if there's a difference in how they manage — see if they're more comfortable and confident in their approach. The organizations that invest in this kind of training are the ones that will reap the benefits."


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