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What you can do to improve managers’ communication skills

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com

From my observation, about 60% of corporate public relations effort is devoted to internal communication because good communication is at the heart of every good workplace.

Despite all the emphasis on electronic communication these days, the most frequent and important means of workplace communication is still face-to-face.

What’s more, studies have shown that communication is the most common activity of management. Managers typically spend 60-80% of their time in operational communication. In large part, communication is their work – mainly face-to-face in meetings, or by telephone or email.

Unfortunately, most managers are poor communicators. In a 2002 survey of 1,104 employees in organizations around the United States, 86% said their bosses thought they were good communicators, but only 17% said their bosses actually communicated effectively. 1

A 2004 international survey conducted by Melcrum Publishing of 712 communication and HR practitioners found that the quality of communication of operational managers was generally poor. Only 14% of communicators rated operational managers in their organization as “good” or “very good”.

The managers were confident and knew their business but were poor at managing and representing their own staff. The biggest problem areas were reported to be managers’ skills at communicating upwards the views and concerns of their team, managers not acting as leaders, and not knowing their employees’ needs.

Respondents blamed the managers for the problems because they said the managers didn’t make the effort to communicate even though they had the time.

However, in most cases management policies allow communication problems to develop. Only 20% of respondents said their organization measured the communication performance of their managers. Of those organizations, the most common measure, 70%, was “changes in employee satisfaction”, which is only an indirect measure. The second most common measure was 360-degree feedback (59%), which depends heavily on the way it is administered. Another common measure was “changes to employees’ understanding of the business strategy/goals” (54%), but improvements in knowledge of business imperatives could occur for reasons other than communication from their manager.

More than half the organizations (54%) gave no communication training to any level of manager.

Respondents revealed three main barriers to rewarding and recognizing effective communication:
  1. Lack of a method to measure communication performance (32% of the organizations).
  2. The organizational culture didn’t include recognizing communication as a core competency for managers (32%).
  3. A lack of buy-in from senior management to make communication a performance measure (25%). 2

But as a PR manager, you can hardly place all the blame at the feet of your operational managers – because the problem is partly of your own making! It is your job to push for communication competencies to be defined and measured, and it is your job to initiate communication training for managers.

Some ways to improve managers’ workplace communication

Good communication skills are not just the realm of PR people.

The PR department provides a support service to management, but this service isn’t a substitute for people who may lack the necessary communication skills. Managers and other leaders need to develop and use their own communication skills to be effective in their work and their relationships with others. They can’t fall back on the PR department to do their communication for them, even though some people continue to think that the PR department is responsible in general terms for all formal organizational communication. They don’t realize that every manager needs to take the responsibility for communicating within their own sphere of activities and especially with their own staff.

The job descriptions of almost all managers and supervisors include good communication skills as an essential component because everyone knows that good leadership depends on good communication. For example, ‘highly developed communication and negotiation skills’, ‘strong communication skills’, ‘effective communication skills’ are common.

This is fine, but what happens next?

  • In what way are good communication skills necessary to being a good manager? 

  • What actually are good communication skills?

  • Who should the skills be important to?

  • How should communication skills be measured?

Most managers are poor communicators, but since communication is largely intangible and often not reinforced as a priority by senior management, poor communicators are largely unaccountable.

How can the managers be accountable? What can be done to improve their application of communication skills?

One answer is that good communication practices can be built into the performance requirements that most managers and supervisors have these days to cover their day-to-day work responsibilities. These practices can be measured in various ways.

The performance management agreements of these people should include acceptable targets and measures of communication activities. You can advise the HR department on suitable activity targets and measurement processes to set for managers.

For instance, the performance agreement for one divisional general manager included the following activities (the dates have been changed:

  • Conduct a communication audit of managers and staff in the division by 15 December.

  • Develop an internal communication strategy by 31 March.

  • Prepare a stakeholder relations strategy by 1 July.

  • Undertake an attitude survey of medium and high priority external stakeholder groups by 30 June [the following year].

You can arrange training for managers on interpersonal communication skills, which should include topics such as:

  • How to measure the quality of your personal communication.

  • Recognize barriers to good communication.

  • Develop behaviors to enhance your working relationships.

  • Understand the importance of non-verbal communication.

  • How to develop active listening skills.

  • How to deal with difficult people.

  • How best to give and receive feedback.

Communication activities could include:

  • conducting an annual communication audit of each manager’s area of responsibility;

  • conducting an annual stakeholder attitude survey;

  • holding a periodic workshop or team session on staff communication;

  • holding regular face-to-face team briefings for the staff who report directly to the managers (their ‘direct reports’);

  • producing a regular newssheet or informal email newsletter for their staff, depending on the number of people in their area of responsibility;

  • establishing a hotline in which staff can telephone them directly about any concerns or suggestions;

  • setting aside a regular available time for staff to see them about any concerns;

  • conducting regular work progress review meetings;

  • regular informal review meetings with staff members rather than the standard formal quarterly or six monthly performance review;

  • organizing a minimum number of staff recognition activities within their area.

Measuring managers’ communication skills

Managers’ communication skills can be measured in various ways:

  • Measure the extent to which they meet the above activity targets;

  • Conduct ‘transmission checks’ – simple surveys of staff to see what they know about information their manager has been asked to pass on to them;

  • Review the responses to simple questionnaires to check how their staff rate their manager’s communication skills, as below;

  • Survey how well their staff understand the organization’s mission or goals and where they fit in to the organization.

One effective way to rate the communication skills of supervisors or managers is to ask their staff to respond to a simple questionnaire like this:

Manager's behaviour
All or almost all the time
Most of the time
Some of the time
Hardly ever
Never
My manager genuinely listens to me when I speak to him.
1
2
3
4
5
My manager tells me about important things happening in the organization.
1
2
3
4
5
My manager communicates clearly to me what his expectations of me are.
1
2
3
4
5
My manager consults with all appropriate team members before he makes important decisions.
1
2
3
4
5
My manager communicates team member views and concerns up the line effectively.
1
2
3
4
5
My manager acts appropriately as a leader in the organization.
1
2
3
4
5

 

Staff ratings of supervisors or managers’ communication skills can quickly be calculated and summarized from the responses to the questionnaire. Notice the statements are about behavior rather than merely about attitudes. It is much easier to change observable behavior than underlying attitudes.

Ideally, this type of survey would be conducted across your organization. Then the results could be tabulated into a table comparing all the managers’ results. The important thing then is to circulate the table to all managers and if possible discuss in a meeting in which they are all present. This will unleash powerful competitive peer pressure among the managers to do better next time.

The above measures relate to outputs rather than results. Results are really what matters, and simple measurement techniques can provide the mechanism to improve operational results. You can take the initiative and achieve impressive results by using measurement techniques to identify operational communication blockages and reach solutions that clearly improve profitability of the area. That’s the subject of another article.

References

  1. Kinni, Theodore. “Loosen up your communication style.” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge newsletter, 30 June 2003. Retrieved from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/tools/print_item.jhtml?id=3559&t=organizations.

  2. Melcrum Research. “Making managers better communicators: tools and techniques for best-practice line manager communication.” Melcrum Publishing Ltd, 2004, http://www.melcrum.com.

This article is based on a chapter in the e-book, Excel with employee communication – the core area of PR practice, by Kim Harrison, which you can access at www.cuttingedgepr.com

 

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.

 

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