Strengthen the Bond with Employees by Listening, Asking Questions and Speaking Up


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

Gaining commitment and engagement from employees depends largely on the existence of healthy relationships between people in the organization and especially between managers and the people they supervise. Healthy relationships involve respect and trust and that requires candor and effective communication.

One of the biggest changes impacting management is that in most organizations managers have to earn their subordinate’s respect and trust. Unless an organization is very hierarchical, respect is no longer tied to a position.  Today, the power to make decisions depends far less on status and hierarchical position and far more on trust and influence.  Without mutual trust very little can be accomplished.  The process of gaining respect and trust necessarily involves real communication, a process in which everyone involved really listens as well as speaks.

Without candor and effective communication you can’t have effective relationships. Trust requires truth and the truth depends on a culture that honors and requires it. Trust, therefore, depends on unusual levels of candor and on powerful values that support it which everyone buys into. When Austin Ligon was CarMax’s CEO he started his Q & A sessions with employees by asking them to tell him anything the company is doing that is stupid or unnecessary, or just doesn’t make sense. That’s a clear invitation for employees to speak out and they did.

Many managers are not comfortable managing people and prefer to view their responsibility as limited to hitting the numbers.  But achieving the numbers requires the enthusiasm and on-board! energy of subordinates and that depends on positive relationships between subordinates and managers.

While forthright communication is very high on the list of Must-Happen, speaking out and telling the truth are not common behaviors in most organizations. Many people are not good at listening and they’re no better at speaking out either.  Fortunately these are pretty easy skills to learn if you want to be good at it.  Candor needs to be rewarded and evasion needs to become a behavior that is scorned.  In order to make this happen, managers need to use peer pressure as well as become models of the behavior they need.

Managers need, for example, to speak out about an important problem such as losing a major customer. Then management should ask for comments about why it happened and what the next steps might be.  If there are no volunteers, the manager must call on people: “Marilyn, you’ve been with us a long time. What do you think?”  “Ron, you’re new and might see things differently. What would you say?”   “Irene, you’ve heard from Marilyn and Ron.  Do you agree with them or would you say something different?”

The goal is to have everyone willing to put their views out on the table. Silence is destructive because it simply masks disagreements.  Disagreements that are expressed have a good chance of being resolved.  Unexpressed disagreements usually end up as heated conflicts.  In fact, when people disagree they don’t speak out to the boss, but they do speak out in anger and frustration to their friends and allies.  That usually leads to employees taking sides and political in-fighting.  It’s hard to imagine a worse outcome.

An organization’s culture has to reinforce the necessity of speaking out and really listening. Really listening involves focusing on the message someone is sending which is the reverse of mentally reloading your gun with new arguments.  An open culture of speaking up and respectful listening invites participation and discussion.  Then disagreement becomes a situation in which different views are explored which often creates synergy and innovation as well as compromise and trust.

Interdependent and mutual relationships between people in an organization are based on trust. When the organization trusts its employees and employees reciprocate, everyone is psychologically free to fully engage their work.  Without trust people are not preoccupied with their work; instead they’re obsessed with how to avoid the next betrayal.

Coaching and Counseling

Managers have two different kinds of special communication responsibilities in terms of managing people: they have to coach, which involves giving feedback, and they should be able to counsel, which is largely a matter of very focused listening. Coaching or counseling requires a pre-existing relationship of trust and respect between a subordinate and a manager.

Coaching is relatively easy because it’s tied directly to improving someone’s attitude or work performance. When managers coach subordinates they usually point out what that person is doing well or poorly and how behaviors could change and output be improved.  The subordinate then knows improvement is possible and has been told how to do things better.  Coaching about specific work issues shouldn’t involve a lot of negative emotion but it often does either because the manager’s focus is on the negative aspects of performance or the employee’s sensitivity makes that the focus.

Feedback can be destructive when it is vague or hostile. Hostile feedback involves attacking the person rather than critiquing a behavior and it always elicits an angry and resentful push-back, even if it’s not expressed overtly.  Nothing positive is achieved with destructive feedback.

In contrast, constructive feedback addresses behavior, is honest and specific, and is intended to lead to positive changes. Constructive coaching is really teaching with specific examples and giving people the information people they need in order to improve.  Managers who are not comfortable communicating with subordinates tend to limit coaching to the feared and formal annual feedback session.  Instead, coaching should occur frequently and informally as a natural by-product of employees tackling new projects and learning new skills.  When employees improve old skills or gain new ones, the coaching session should become an opportunity for recognition.

Most of the time the problem with feedback is there is too little of it. People know they’re being continuously evaluated at work.  It is appropriate that they tend to become uncomfortable and anxious when they’re not told how they’re doing.  Managers owe all employees clear expectations about what and how they will perform, specific goals and time tables, recognition for achievements, help when it’s needed and frequent, ongoing constructive feedback.

Most commonly, it’s the squeaking wheel—the failing employee—who gets the most coaching time. A failing employee deserves support and time and a plan of improvement.  But most of the coaching should be given to the A-level stars and the B-level steady performers who, together, accomplish what matters.

No one does everything well and feedback should not dwell on what A- and B- level performers do badly in terms of skills. Instead, managers should focus on the areas in which these people are most talented because honing talents achieves much greater results than trying to remedy areas in which they have neither talented nor interest.

Coaching can generate positive feelings in the subordinate if the manager thinks of the coaching role as that of a teacher who is continuously improving the performance of a talented, able and willing student.



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