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Communicating Up, Down and Sideways

As a manager, half of your job is communication-related. Whether you are giving directions to your workers, updating your manager about the department’s current operations and needs, or discussing with your peers how you can more effectively work together, an effective communication style may make all the difference.

You might take your communication skills for granted—that you don’t need any special training. After all, you have been able to talk since you were a baby. But there are do’s and don’ts that you need to know to ensure effective communication. Communication is a process and that process must take place for a message to go from the sender to the recipient. The emphasis is usually on the last step, and managers should always get feedback from the recipient to ensure that the message has been received and understood.

Three Examples

Let me share with you three experiences by young managers.

In the first case, John had told his employees what seemed like a hundred times that he didn’t want them to take their lunch break at the same time yet, day after day at 12:30 the office would be empty.

Marge had a problem of her own. She felt she was ready for a promotion, and she went into her manager’s office to tell her why she felt she deserved it. But, as she later told some friends, “I never got to raise the issue. I think my boss deliberately avoided the discussion.”

Finally, let me tell you about Michael. Easygoing, it takes a lot to get him upset, so I was surprised when, furious with his assistant, he called me to complain about her. Since he had only told me the week before about how wonderful she was, I was shocked to learn that he was thinking of putting her on warning. Once he calmed down, he told me the problem. He had a report due to be presented to a prospective client that morning, and his assistant hadn’t even started work on it. “I told her last week that I would need it today,” he fumed, “and now she claims I never said a word to her.”

All three situations have one thing in common: The managers blamed their communication problems on the other party. While many times, the person spoken to may not have been listening, the fact remained that getting the message across was the managers responsibility—and they failed.

What Went Wrong

None of these managers had made an effort to be understood or checked to be sure that they were heard. If they had been addressing their own entire department about a serious matter or making a request of their manager, thy might have taken the time to plan what they said. But they saw no reason to treat these instructions or queries as equally important. They needed to learn to communicate clearly and with impact at all times, regardless of when, why, or with whom they are speaking.

There are some basics that all managers should know:

  • Be direct when the situation demands it. Say what you mean clearly. Do not garble your message behind phrases that obscure or soften its impact.
  • When making a request or giving a directive, be polite but decisive. You can thank your employees for doing extra work without being apologetic
  • Take a moment to think before speaking. What is it you really want to say? What emotions do you want to express? Which ones do you not want to express? How can you communicate these through your use of language?
  • Be certain the time is appropriate for communicating. Praise is usually welcome at any time, but avoid criticizing an employee’s work when he or she has one foot out the door and is leaving for a three-day weekend. Better to save your observations for a more receptive time.
  • Make sure you have all the information before making a statement. You can either delay the discussion or ask questions first to help you collect the necessary information.  
    How do these rules apply to the earlier situations? John complained that he repeatedly asked his staff not to take lunch at the same time, but he hadn’t been clear in his instructions. Further, he hadn’t explained why it was important. He should have met with the staff responsible and asked them to make a schedule that ensured the office was covered at all times. If some of the employees wanted to lunch together, he could have suggested that times be rotated, so that all could share the responsibility of manning the phone.

In Marge’s case, she should have better prepared for her meeting. For instance, she would have done better had she brought documentation with her on her accomplishments over the past two years. It wouldn’t have hurt, either, if she had alerted her boss to the purpose of her meeting. Even if she didn’t get what she wanted, her boss would be aware of her aspirations and might have used the time prior to the meeting to come up a with compromise offer—maybe, even, a bonus.

Marge should also have practiced beforehand the most economical way to present your case. Wordiness can lose a listener’s attention.

Michael’s problem wasn’t as simple as he thought. Once he calmed down, he discovered that his assistant had known about the report but had been unable to work on it because she was busy doing work given to her by Sid, the other manager she assisted. She had told Sid that Michael’s work had priority but he had insisted. Michael’s work not only dealt with a potential prospect but also had been assigned Linda before Sid’s, so Michael felt justified in talking to Sid about it. Before he did, he spoke to me and I gave him some advice. From what Michael had told me, Sid could be manipulative, getting people to agree to do something they didn’t want to do. He would often make the same request in three different ways, use emotional blackmail to make a peer feel guilty (e.g., “I let Linda work on your assignment last week. I felt you owed me”), try to wear the other party down with repeated requests, or take an aggressive approach.

I told Michael about a technique called “the broken-record.” After telling Sid that he should not have interfered with Linda’s work, I told Michael that he should make it clear that he did not want a repetition of the situation. In the future, Sid should discuss Linda’s workload with Michael before speaking with her.

Sid apologized but he tried to get out of the  demand that he and Michael work together to coordinate Linda’s assignments. I told Michael that he had to remain firm. Each time that Sid came up with a reason why it would not work, he should respond “no” and then repeat his demand that they discuss Linda’s assignments weekly to ensure that each got equal time. For instance, “No, I don’t think it will take too much time for us to do this.” “No, I want us to oversee Linda’s workload, not put in her the awkward position of having to make a choice of which job to complete first.” “No, I don’t think we will be unable to appreciate the importance of each other’s work. We can make sound judgments about her time.”

So long as Michael said “no” calmly and pleasantly, without showing anger or feeling upset, there was no reason for Sid to take issue with his request—other than that it would keep him from monopolizing Linda’s time.

The upside of the story is that Michael made a terrific presentation and got the client for his firm. He was also assigned Linda as his assistant full time.

About the Author(s)

Florence M. Stone is editor of Executive Matters and editorial director of MWorld¸ both publications of the American Management Association.