It had been a long sunny day in Brighton and as I walked into our secretarial support office, sleeves rolled up and tie removed, my PA suggested out of concern that I was looking hot. The cheeky side of me came to the fore and I suggested that she wasn’t looking too bad herself.
We all shared a laugh together – but on the long drive home I did wonder how often things that we say, or indeed don’t say, are misinterpreted, received poorly or simply cause offence. I also speculated whether it made a difference if a comment comes from a manager or not.
Given the well-established research that some 60 per cent of people leave their managers, not their organisations, the issue of how we speak to them and what we say is clearly important.
Using the right words in the right way can transform our experience of work. Think about the last time you went to an interesting or, dare I say, exciting meeting. What was it that made it exciting? Probably something that someone said.
Think back to your last one-to-one meeting or appraisal. Perhaps you provided constructive feedback and suggested actions for development. Perhaps your member of staff, in response to your asking whether there was anything more you could do to help them, made suggestions to you? What did you say in response? And when did you last have an idea and excitedly go to speak about it to someone, perhaps your team, peers or manager? What was their reaction? Was the reception enthusiastic, lukewarm, dismissive or simply a blank face? How did you feel?
If staff feel that we are not serious when we say something or that we simply do not care about them, they will respond. Eventually we will see the results of this neglect in low response rates to surveys, higher short-term absences, clock-watching, loss of goodwill and lower performance. In the worst cases we will struggle to retain and recruit staff.
So what can be done to improve our oral communication with staff? The first step is recognition that a problem may exist.
If you had a health problem, you would normally go to your GP in the first instance. Can I suggest you could use your senior HR managers as a form of management primary care? You’ll be surprised at the level of rounded knowledge they hold about you, your performance and reputation as a manager of people. Talk to the relevant staff representatives and ask them what they think about your ability to talk and listen. Listen carefully and combine this with the feedback from a 360-degree appraisal.
Getting out and talking to people is one of the most basic, yet most effective, parts of people management practice but one of the most ignored, overlooked and undervalued. The good news is that it’s easy to improve if you are serious about it. Perhaps it’s time to get back to basics.