Manager to Employee: We Need to Talk

There are songs (How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm) and time-worn idioms (You can’t put the genie back in the bottle) that speak to the fact that when disruptions to existing norms occur, things are less likely to “return to normal” than to establish new set points. The pandemic changed how people work forever. In our recent post, we recommended that leaders look for the advantage in these changes rather than trying to go back to the ‘”old ways of working” (see “Best Practices to Make the Pandemic Crisis into a Workplace Opportunity”). 

It’s Complicated 

When – or if – to return to the office is a complicated decision. Leaders need to consider many factors and each organization must find its own solution. There is a difference of opinion between when employers want people back in the office and when employees want to come back. A PwC US Remote Work survey from January 2021 found that over half of employees (55%) want to work remotely at least three days a week. In contrast, 43% of executives prefer limited remote work schedules. Only 24% expect many or all office employees to work remotely for a significant amount of their time. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon went so far as to call remote work an “aberration” it is going to correct as quickly as possible. 

What is also confounding is that, despite high employee anxiety about the potential of returning to the office, a Limeade survey of 4553 workers found that 56% of employees say their organization hasn’t asked for their feedback about return-to-work policies and procedures.

Hybrid Work Is Here to Stay 

Managers need to get comfortable with autonomy and managing hybrid teams. Microsoft’s Work Trend Index surveyed 30,000 people from 31 countries in 2021. It found that 73% of workers want their employers to continue providing flexible remote work options as the hybrid work model evolves. This means organizations need to create a hybrid work model that accommodates people working in an office sometimes and from another location at other times. Managers need to get over the fear that because they cannot see their employees, they don’t really know what they are doing (see “Managing Management Panic in the Pandemic”). This fear often leads to a suspicious undercurrent in employee interactions that undermines individuals’ confidence and hurts the team climate. Hybrid work environments make leadership skills that promote psychological safety in virtual teams even more critical than in the past. Open, honest and supportive communication is key. 

Words Matter 

The importance of positive manager-employee communication is well documented. Effective managers know that positive reinforcement in speech and action works better than negativity and threats at getting employees to do what is needed. New research strengthens the mind-body-word connectionIn her book, “Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain,” Lisa Feldman Barrett describes research done in her lab that shows a clear connection between the part of the brain that processes language and internal systems of the body such as the immune and endocrine systems. In short, negative talk is damaging physically as well as emotionally. Employers pay the price for negativity in terms of increased healthcare costs for employees with conditions exacerbated by chronic stress such as diabetes, heart disease, and depression. The research belies the stock retort to verbal playground bullying “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” In fact, verbal abuse can be as detrimental to humans as physical abuse.

Authors Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, assert that words can literally change the brain. They recommend an approach called “compassionate communication” that suggests relationships will be more successful when people are more positive. Most self-aware people know that unkind words and thoughtless accusations damage personal relationships. Sadly, not everyone carries courtesy and civility from the home front into their workplace conversations. The Workplace Bullying Report 2021 survey results report that 30% of workers are bullied at work, up from 19% in 2017.

What’s a manager to do? 

There are many steps leaders and managers need to take to create a positive and productive hybrid work environment. Here are some specifically related to employee communication:

  • Examine your words. Ditch the negative talk and militaristic language. Replace phrases such as “execute a plan” with “carry out a plan.” It is difficult to morph “troops in the trenches” into “teams” when employees feel like embattled soldiers caught behind enemy lines. Instead of saying to an employee, “You know what you forgot?” ask if they considered item X.
  • Lead by example. This educates employees about what behaviors you want them to mirror. It will help them grow and succeed.
  • Prioritize catching employees “doing something right. This reinforces the behaviors and work practices you want to see more of. Be mindful of how you explain how an employee might be underperforming. Instead of trying to soften negative feedback by sandwiching it between two pieces of positive feedback, use transparent and specific performance examples that inform employees about what needs improvement. Point out the positive aspects of making the change to them personally, not just what the organization gets out of it. Feedback can be useful, direct, and constructive without being nasty.
  • Get feedback on how you communicate. Ask about frequency as well as the ability to convey concepts with clarity and transparency. Are you communicating in ways that promote trust and engagement?
  • Ask for suggestions to improve team climate. A few example questions: Do employees have the information they need to do their jobs? Do employees understand how their work contributes to the organization meeting its goals? Do employees feel fulfilled professionally? Seek to understand, not argue.  
  • Listen actively and with empathy. Communication skills involve articulating yourself well as well as listening intently. Push away distractions such as cell phones and papers so you can focus on the employee. Show through your body language that you care about what they have to say.

The Microsoft survey also revealed that employees are stressed and managers need to take notice. A simple, straightforward way to lessen some of the stress is to focus on communicating in ways that make all employees feel acknowledged, appreciated, and included regardless of where they are working.

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The views and opinions in this analysis are my own and do not represent positions or opinions of The Analyst Syndicate. Read more on the Disclosure Policy.