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Bad communicator, bad boss (generally)


SmallTech / Monte Enbysk

Funny how many bosses think their subordinates are moving on because of dissatisfaction over what they are paid. Wrong.


A 2001 study involving some 20,000 exit interviews found that the No. 1 reason people leave jobs is "poor supervisory behavior." In other words, bad bosses.

And one of the biggest factors cited in "poor supervisory behavior" was . . . poor communication skills. People too often are promoted for their workplace accomplishments, without any assessment of their communication skills, says Gretchen Heller, human resources consultant at Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

Simply put, if you aren't a good communicator, you probably shouldn't be a boss. And you probably won't be one for long, although there does appear to be a lot of bad bosses hanging on out there.

Fortunately, good communicators are made, not born, says David A. Owens, assistant professor of management at Vanderbilt University's Owen School of Management.

I talked to several management and human resources experts recently about how well today's managers communicate, including their use of e-mail. When I asked what bosses generally need to work on, here is what they told me.

7 basic communication tips



2.      Be a better listener. Pay attention to your employees. Sounds simple, but it is a common gripe, says Maureen Dolan Rosen of Rosen & Associates, a human resources consultancy based in Chapel Hill, N.C. Among the things she stresses in workshops with managers is "learning how to listen better." She'll also offer a story about one of her former bosses, who cleverly perched his hand under his chin and appeared in meetings to be listening intently to whoever was speaking. But if you looked closely, under his glasses, his eyes were closed. He'd use the meetings to snooze.

3.      Make time for employees. Regular, one-on-one meetings with your team members are important; if employees work remotely, meet by phone. If you can't meet weekly, do it at least twice a month. And don't take phone calls during meetings, unless it is an emergency. Show your employees they have your full attention. Talk about their career paths and how you envision them growing in their jobs. On the flip side, employees need to be aware of bosses' time pressures.

4.      Get the word out to those affected as efficiently as possible. Take great pains to reach those who should be in the know about workplace changes coming down from above. This is tough. How easy it is to forget to tell someone, on a timely basis, something they should know about to do their job. But know the downfall: Work may not get done, and you may also look like you aren't in the know - which doesn't exactly inspire confidence in your troops.

5.      Put out a consistent message about your values. Knowing who you are, and what you stand for, can help your employees make better decisions on their own (or at least decisions that you will like better). If you're sending mixed messages, explain them or suffer the consequences.

6.      Give regular feedback; avoid surprises. Employees shouldn't first learn about significant performance issues in an annual evaluation. They should be confronted well beforehand (and as humanely as possible) that there is something they need to improve. "The annual evaluation should be more of a recap," Rosen says.

7.      Be effective in speaking to groups. I'm not talking here about speaking to the local chamber of commerce or Rotary Club - although that is not a bad skill to have too, by the way. I mean employee groups. If you can't speak well at employee meetings or in front of employee groups, you lose credibility as a manager. Learn how to do it; learn how to get better at it. The same thing goes for writing group e-mails.

8.      Don't hide behind e-mails. Most delicate matters must be discussed in person. Most conflicts must be settled in person, or at least by phone. When emotions are involved, e-mail becomes a less-appropriate vehicle to communicate. And e-mail is never an appropriate method to tell someone he or she is being laid off, Heller and others insist. (Yes, I know it happens.) Nonetheless, e-mail is an important communications tool, so I've also included a set of tips <http://www.bcentral.com/articles/enbysk/150.asp> on how to communicate best using e-mail.

Getting your own evaluation

Should you seek out feedback from employees on your performance as a manager? You bet. It will engender loyalty, and likely make you a better boss.

How do you solicit such feedback? Larger businesses, such as Microsoft, have annual manager feedback forms that can be answered by employees (anonymously, if they so choose).

While that is one way to do it - and a way that is helpful in a corporate setting, where you have large HR staffs - I suggest you continually strive to get the feedback in person, as part of an ongoing dialogue with each of your employees.

Don't do it via e-mail. Use your one-on-one meetings with an employee to hear him or her out on an issue or concern with your management style. Try to disarm the employee as much as possible, with humor or whatever, and be sincere in your interest about what he or she has to say. It may be hard for you to do, but it may even be harder for the employee to speak his or her mind. The end result is likely to be a better relationship.

What if you can't get the employee to speak up? Your best bet is to keep working at your dialogue, without making the employee uncomfortable. Over time, the employee will confide in you. A smart way to end every one-on-one meeting is to casually but earnestly ask, "Is there anything else on your mind?" Then be willing to listen because, over time, you will be hearing more about what the employee is thinking.

Acting on employee feedback

How do you handle an employee's criticism? You listen to what the employee has to say, ask questions where appropriate, get the employee's suggestions on how you could improve and then pledge to consider it.

You are likely not to agree with everything said, at least initially. But take it all under advisement. Your initial reaction might be to reject the feedback completely. Bad move. Tell him you will take some time to think about the criticism, and get back to him later. Then do so.

Chances are, you will appreciate what the employee had to say, even if - after spending some time thinking about it - you still disagree. Do get back to the employee and pledge to do what you feel is necessary to enhance the relationship.

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