We Need to Talk About Talking

Take a moment to think back to those times you switched jobs and try and remember what your reasons were for changing. There’s probably a fair chance that ‘dissatisfaction with your manager’ was high on your list.

I recently caught up with an old colleague of mine from another life and we spoke about our shared time at work with our previous employer. We both remarked on how fortunate we were to leave when we did, as our then manager had created a toxic environment which led to low morale within the team, absenteeism and eventually resignations.

It got me thinking. What was it about the situation that made me and the rest of the team want to leave?

The word communication or more accurately, the lack of it, springs to mind.

Indeed, according to almost every piece of workplace research, employees regularly bemoan the lack of communication by their managers. A recent survey by Accountemps found that one-third of employees cited “lack of open, honest communication” as the key contributor to low morale, while almost forty per cent said that “improving communication” was the best remedy for improving morale.

Delving further into the results highlighted that employees used “poor communication by management” as a major gripe in exit interviews when leaving their jobs.

At the time, our manager didn’t put a lot of stock in communicating with staff, either in terms of giving direction or simple day-to-day chit-chat. It made it difficult to gauge whether we were valued as staff members.

Unfortunately though, many managers find it difficult to engage with staff, from issuing clear instructions, discussing performance or career prospects, to providing advice to a struggling employee or motivating staff.

A by-product of finding conversation difficult or unnecessary is an inability to listen or show empathy or consideration - attributes that are becoming increasingly integral to successful managers.


A report by US management consultant DDI, Driving Workplace Performance Through High-Quality Conversations, has given a damning assessment of managers’ communication-based leadership behaviour.

The global study of employee attitudes to management found that half of all respondents reported their managers “only sometimes or never ask them for ideas about how to solve a problem”, while 45 per cent indicated their manager “only sometimes or never provides sufficient feedback on performance”.

Not satisfied with only taking an employee view, the DDI researchers also questioned managers about their communication habits and found that almost 60 per cent of managers engaged with staff to ensure they better understood what was being said. Additionally, the survey found that 36 per cent felt they never handled work conversations “efficiently”.

That’s a lot of damage being done.

According to DDI, effective conversations at the leadership level are critical to a range of workplace interactions, such as conducting team meetings, seeking input from stakeholders on key decisions, listening to customers, leading change, influencing the direction of a new structure, delegating tasks and assignments, and conducting performance discussions.


According to Rich Baker, Senior Leader, Internal Communications and Employee Engagement, Carlsberg Group, too many organisations still promote their managers on the basis of technical proficiency rather than the ability to lead and manage in complex and demanding work environments.

Additionally, he believes that many new managers aren’t provided with the necessary mentoring, training and development to ensure they have the interpersonal skills that complement their technical competence. Sooner or later their lack of communications skills will undermine their effectiveness as leaders.

While it may appear that teams are functioning normally, communication breakdowns between managers and staff inevitably lead to lower productivity, lack of motivation and a general malaise until people who feel they are no longer valued or appreciated can’t wait to get another job.

As shown in a recent study by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Workplace Leadership, an overwhelming 75 per cent of employees surveyed believed their workplaces needed better leadership.

And the key reason? You guessed it, poor communication.

According to the Accountemps survey, a lack of communication between managers and staff will lead to staff filling the void. An active, employee-only grapevine often develops, where gossip, negativity and misinformation will flourish.

So how does the modern manager address it? Email of course!


With technology so pervasive in modern workplaces, it’s easy to see how email has become the go-to form of communication. But the trouble with email is that it is completely impersonal and in many cases opens the door to conflict and confusion. Managers who rely on email struggle to get their message across in a way that isn’t misinterpreted by their audience. Without the combination of verbal and non-verbal cues that conversations provide, emails can be misread very easily. What may have been an innocently written missive may come across as overly blunt, angry or sarcastic.

An over-reliance on email is something Dr Malcolm Johnson, General Manager Professional Development, Australian Institute of Management, laments, suggesting that technology is a poor replacement for old-fashioned communication skills.

“Senior managers set the standard of communication behaviour and serve as a benchmark for less experienced managers,” says Dr Johnson.

“Candid communication requires respect, skill and courage such that technology should give way to more effective face-to-face interaction.”

So how can you maintain and even enhance your team’s morale? Simple: Communicate more.

Foster an environment of open communication where your team feels free to ask for clarification and provide feedback. Regularly communicate the company vision and treat your staff with dignity and respect, and most importantly, spend time with them face-to-face.

Originally published at: https://theinstitute.com.au/members-centre/articles/2014/11/we-need-to-talk-about-talking?