Excellent managers are excellent communicators, at least according to just about everyone. From leadership seminars to Harvard Business Review, the message comes across loud, clear and repeatedly: the difference between a so-so leader and a great one is how well they communicate.
Sure, communication skills are important for everyone. But unlike individual or organizational communication, managers communicate in order to lead. That means directing, delegating, giving feedback, and delivering bad news, as well as interpreting and explaining an ever-changing landscape. It’s challenging, no doubt about it.
I’ve had some experience with this myself during the more than twenty years I was an IT manager. Here’s some of what I figured out during that time.
Delivering Unwelcome News
Experienced managers know that opportunities to be bearers of bad news come with the territory. When executives set aggressive–even unrealistic–financial goals, managers get to communicate that news to their staffs. When key employees resign, managers make the announcement, and whether the resigning employee was beloved or reviled, it’s often difficult to talk about either way. When it’s time for a reorg, managers communicate the (sometimes unpopular) change. When new security procedures are implemented, or when new government regulations are handed down requiring even more work, these, too, put managers in the communication hotseat. Layoffs, budget cuts, shorter deadlines, fewer resources–managers get to communicate all that.
It may be tempting to find a way out of being the bearer of bad news, but it’s something you should always do personally. Don’t delegate it. You’re a manager, and you own the news, even if you don’t completely agree with it. Never duck behind an email or a text message. Be present, preferably live and in person. If you’re traveling and can’t be there in person, a live conference call or virtual meeting will have to suffice. But be there. Managers who routinely sidestep the unpleasantness of communicating bad news don’t earn points for bravery or credibility.
When faced with unwelcome news, the question on everyone’s mind is “What does this news mean to me?” Answer that as honestly as you can. Does it mean more work? Bad press? More risk? Part of a manager’s job is to help people roll with change because change is inevitable, and many people don’t like it. While it might seem that downplaying the effects of bad news would help lessen the blow, the truth is most people know better, so don’t pretend.
When It’s Confidential
I once had an employee whom we had to terminate for using drugs at work. He’d been very popular with the team, but one day, seemingly abruptly, I terminated him (with help from corporate security), and he was gone.
HR told me not to speak of it to the team, not a word, to which I replied “What? We just pretend he was sucked into a vortex in the night? Or that he never existed?” They had no answer for that, simply reiterating that I was not to speak of it. I told them that was precisely the kind of thing that makes employees distrust management, and I wanted no part of it. So I assembled my team, all of whom of course had surmised what had happened (it was hard not to notice the behavior and put two and two together). I trusted them, and I asked them never to speak of it outside the meeting we were having. None of them ever did, and I doubt HR ever knew for sure that I didn’t take their advice.
But of course there are times when you really can’t say. Maybe there’s litigation pending or for some other reason, the lid really needs to stay on tight. In that case you simply say that you are sure they will understand that sometimes confidentiality is a must, this is one of those times and, if a time comes when you can share more, you will. Until then, not. If you’re transparent when you can be, then when you can’t be, most people will be fine with that. If you’re never transparent, you’ll be distrusted, simple as that.
Everyone knows that you can have two number one priorities. In fact, you can have many more than two. Not only that, you can have conflicting priorities. Staff up and cut expenses. Design an interface between two systems despite the plan to decommission one of them. Move the team to the basement, though basement reconstruction begins in a month. Things like that.
Over the years, I’ve observed that engineers and techies have little respect for logical disonnects. They like determinism–one right answer! They prefer certainty over ambiguity, and that characteristic is part of what makes them good at their jobs. Many problems are math problems for which there is an answer, even if it takes all night/month/year to figure it out.
Persistence to this kind of exacting end, as well as the expertise to get there, are characteristics of engineering and tech professionals I’ve always admired. However, what managers often deal with, such as conflicting priorities and the murky waters of company politics, are exactly what precision-loving, ambiguity-hating engineers dislike.
All of which is to say that, when controversial, oblique, or inherently confusing stuff is going down, it’s a good idea to buffer the discussion. Not to hide the news, but to minimize the group tendency to apply a one-right-answer approach to problems that don’t lend themselves to that.
We want engineers to relentlessly pursue correct calculations and repeatable results. But those aren’t the skills of strategic level maneuvering, so help employees do less hand wringing over the kinds of things that don’t align naturally with their best thinking.
How much you filter is up to you. It’s a balance between making sure they know what’s going on in the company and what’s behind decision-making, while at the same time making sure they’re not distracted by it.
Some managers dread one-on-one conversations more than communicating to the team as a whole, especially when the focus of the conversation is performance improvement. Engineering managers, who may well have been individual contributors and subject matter experts themselves, may hesitate to give feedback about performance in an area where they’re not experts. Or they may simply assume that any conversation where you tell an employee they’re not doing well is going to be a miserable occasion, and who wants that?
When performance is the issue, it’s easier and more productive to ask questions at the outset than to make proclamations. Ask what are the obstacles the employee is facing that are impeding progress and quality. Ask how he (or she) thinks he’s doing. Ask what you can do to help things along. It’s very likely the employee already knows there’s a problem and has been dreading this conversation more than you have.
Once you get the discussion rolling with these questions, then confirm that, yes, there’s a problem, and it’s this (missing deadlines, too many errors, incomplete work, disputes with others, etc., etc.).
Unless you have super problem employee, you can assume that most people come to work every day to do the best job they know how. Very few people, maybe none, get up in the morning thinking, “Gee, I wonder how I can screw things up at work today.” As thought leader and management consultant Richard Farson once said: “Most employees are trying to do the best they can. They prefer to do good work, to cooperate, to meet objectives. They prefer harmony over conflict, action over inaction, productivity over delays. Not everyone, and not all the time. But in general, people want to perform effectively.”
When you have that as your underlying premise about your team, even the most difficult communication gets easier.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Her new novel, Speaking English with My Father, is available now.