Survey: 69 percent of managers dislike communicating with staff

They especially are uncomfortable offering criticism that might cause employees to flare up. Why—and what can be done about this?

Most internal communications strategies include a serious emphasis on manager-to-employee messaging and feedback.

But what happens if your managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees when staffers might feel hurt or stir up unwanted drama?

A new Interact survey of 2,000 U.S. adults by Harris Poll reveals that that 69 percent of managers are often uneasy about communicating with employees, and 37 percent say they dislike giving employees direct feedback if they think the staffer might respond negatively, the Harvard Business Review reports.

“Our own nervousness causes us to tense up and over-dramatize the conversation,” Interact states. “We set ourselves up for a fearful response with demands like, ‘Come in and shut the door. I need to talk to you.’ We create an environment of conflict.”

The survey results also showed that 20 percent of leaders who manage employees are uncomfortable demonstrating vulnerability such as sharing mistakes they’ve learned from, Interact reports. And if you feel like it’s been a while since the boss gave you a pat on the back, you’re not alone. A fifth of managers have a hard time praising a job well done—or, for that matter, delivering the “company line” in a genuine way.

Misguided promotions

That many managers are poor at communications is unsurprising, says Shel Holtz of Holtz Communications + Technology. The problem lies in the way organizations vault valuable employees to the top of the pay scale, whether or not they these people demonstrate management abilities.

“I have always been confounded by the way people are promoted into positions where they are going to be responsible for staff as a reward for doing their tactical job,” Holtz says. “They earned their promotion because they did a great job at something that didn’t involve managing people, not because they had great people-management skills.”

Some organizations do provide training for such novice managers, Holtz says, citing his own experience at Mattel years ago, when he was a communicator there. Every Friday afternoon for 4½ months, he attended a training program that was “like a mini-MBA, very Mattel-specific.”

Such training helps, but it doesn’t resolve the basic problem that communications involves specific abilities, and not everybody has them.

“Ideally you would have a promotion track for people who are specialists, so they could be rewarded and recognized and advanced for doing what they’re good at, not simply changing their jobs,” Holtz says. “But I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

More training needed

Linda Pophal, owner of Strategic Communications, based in Wisconsin, also calls for training. Organizations often assume managers have strong communication skills and know how to recognize employee performance and address performance issues, she says.

“But few managers have actually received formal training in management—many are promoted up through the ranks and simply don’t have the knowledge, skills or ability to communicate effectively,” she says.

Organizations should offer training to all new managers and develop communications skills on an ongoing basis, she says. Also, organizations can help to establish a culture that supports two-way communication and clearly establishes managers as the primary communication conduit for staff.

The Harvard Business Review noted that a lack of communication from managers can be dangerous for a business.

People thrive on feedback. In my communications consultancy work I have watched droves of top executives, emerging leaders, supervisors, and frontline managers become enlivened—even honored—by feedback, whether it was positive or negative.

Imagine training for a marathon without a watch, never knowing how fast you’re running other than the possible exception of the occasional “Good job!” from your coach. You’d have no way of knowing whether you’re prepared to meet your goal.

What to do about managers who aren’t comfortable communicating—beyond not hiring them in the first place? First, survey employees to find out what their favorite communication channel is, Holtz says.

Engagement is not just about employees’ relationship with the boss, Holtz says. It’s about understanding the company narrative, giving people a voice, and finding ways to help align personal values with company values.

“Communicators need to start looking at other dimensions of engagement besides just the employee-supervisor relationship,” Holtz says.

Pophal says communicators have multiple tools to help do this. When she was director of corporate communications for an integrated healthcare system, they developed “press kits” that were provided to department heads during monthly management meetings.

Talking points make comms less stressful

These materials included talking points, PPTs slides, FAQs, process instructions, and other materials “to make it easier, and less stressful, for managers to share the information. … Managers may be hesitant to share information for fear that they somehow convey the wrong message, or aren’t able to respond to employee questions.”

How to know if one of your managers is a poor communicator? An article in VitalLearning suggests looking for these and other signs:

  • Decreased employee productivity.
  • Resistance to change.
  • A high turnover rate.
  • A greater need for discipline.

“Some managers may attribute the need for discipline to the shortcomings of their employees, but it’s entirely possible that their own poor communication is to blame,” the article states.


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