Are your managers afraid of conflict? If so, it’s costing you

When leaders are loath to have difficult conversations, your employees—and the company— suffer.

With great power comes great responsibility—to communicate.

Unfortunately, most managers today would rather not talk about it. A study from Interact found that 69 percent of managers admitted to being “uncomfortable communicating with their employees.” Nearly 40 percent of the supervisors surveyed copped to feeling “uncomfortable having to give direct feedback/criticism about their employee’s performance that they might respond badly to.”

According to the survey, managers also struggle mightily with:

  • Showing vulnerability
  • Recognizing employee accomplishments
  • Giving clear directions
  • Crediting others with good ideas
  • Speaking face to face, rather than via email


Avoiding conflict is poison for any relationship, but in the workplace, lack of clear, straightforward feedback can be a company killer. Poor manager communication remains one of the chief reasons why Gallup—every single year since 2000—has found that fewer than one-third of Americans are engaged at work.

Communication is directly tied to engagement, morale, productivity and revenue, yet most organizations still treat it as an ancillary, abstract intangible. Meanwhile, 51 percent of your workers have one foot out the door.

Feedback, meaning and success

Workers, regardless of age, crave feedback. Employees need direction, motivation, objectives and specific instructions, but what’s the best way to tightrope through those delicate conversations?

Lou Solomon, writing in Harvard Business Review, offers four tips:

  • Be direct but kind.
  • Respectfully listen.
  • Don’t make it personal.
  • Be present, and be brave enough to endure moments of silence.
  • Inspire greatness.

It’s also crucial to help employees discover substantive meaning in their career. Money and benefits pale in comparison with the profound, primal feeling of satisfaction derived from being a part of something consequential. A recent report from Globoforce found that “meaningful work” was the No. 1 reason people stayed in a job. Compensation ranked third.

Even those working toward noble pursuits can quickly burn out or grow disillusioned, so it’s important for leaders to consistently stoke the inspiration fire. Keep reminding your colleagues about the worth of their work, and make sure they feel appreciated, respected and heard.

To help workers find meaning, Stephanie Vozza of Fast Company suggests these techniques:

  • Offer frequent validation.
  • Connect jobs to a greater cause.
  • Create a strong sense of community.
  • Encourage and sponsor continuous learning (including peer-to-peer learning).

Communication is the linchpin

Of course, none of this happens without great communication. If your managers are among the 69 percent who “feel uncomfortable” communicating with employees, you might have to get comfortable with poor retention, low morale and stilted productivity. Communication and success are inextricably linked.

Vague expectations and unresolved tension can ruin an otherwise tremendous work experience. A culture with a premium on clear, direct, consistent communication, however, sets up workers—and companies—for enduring success.

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