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Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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Now you’re talking, manager

Published 02 August 2012 05:01, Updated 09 August 2012 04:15

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Now you’re talking, manager

Use respect: Susan Heron, Australian Institute of Management Luis Ascui

Executive coach Jon Michail is often brought into companies plagued by dysfunctional cultures that impede performance at individual, team or organisational levels.

Known by his professional name of Jon-Michail, the veteran coach spends time in these organisations, getting to know their eddies and flows. One thing that often doesn’t flow, he says, is conversation.

“At great companies there are great conversations going on all the time,” says Jon-Michail, who started Image Group International in 1989. “People are conversing purposefully, relationships are being strengthened and it’s all for the good of the organisation.”

One trend that disturbs the ebullient coach is the decline in “authentic” conversation, particularly between staff and management.

“Those one-on-one conversations that are so important for building relationships and partnerships are lacking today big time. Ten years ago I thought maybe this is a trend that will go away, but it’s got worse.”

Perhaps, he muses, it’s the confluence of several factors that inhibits conversations between managers and staff – a restless economy, restructuring and cutbacks, diminishing trust, the rise of jargon and spin, and the advent of litigious workplaces in which managers feel they cannot speak freely.

“It’s actually very difficult to have authentic conversations in the workplace today. There are so many games going on, so many mixed messages and out of control human resources departments and political correctness are causing so much damage,” Jon-Michail says.

Managers skilled in elaborate communication techniques or who simply parrot company lines risk alienating already disengaged employees. Often these managers find it difficult to initiate spontaneous conversations and even when they do, they resort to corporate speak or guarded language.

“The word I keep using is ‘authentic’, and I mean it,” he says. “A manager may be slick and positive and think he’s being very clever when he is having conversations with staff but everyone knows it’s just more blah, blah, blah.”

The ability to communicate clearly and credibly is critical for anyone working with or managing teams. For managers, the clearer the directions to teams, the more likely those directions will be understood, followed and executed.

“The quality of conversations with team members affects the quality of the work they do, it improves their morale, it leads to better relationships in the workplace,” Jon-Michail says.

“The clearer the task at hand, the clearer the context of what you are asking your team to do, the greater the value that you create for yourself, your team and the organisation.”

Difficult conversations are a particular source of angst. A book by management trainer Darren Hill and psychologists Alison Hill and Sean Richardson, Dealing With the Tough Stuff, is about mastering “crucial conversations”.

“As a leader, supervisor or manager, there’s one inevitable task you will encounter: the tough-stuff conversation. Whether it’s addressing underperformance, critiquing work or dealing with heightened emotions, some situations with some people will be tough – there’s no escaping it,” the authors warn.

These conversations can cover many issues: customer complaints, disputes with colleagues, poor performance or job cuts. Conversations have to be equal to the challenge.

“When we have to deal with the tough stuff, we often fluff around the subject and avoid being clear and getting to the point. Others around us also use fluff [including jargon],” they write.

“To get rid of the fluff, you need to get clear in your communication, get clear in your intent and get to the point.”

Difficult conversations are a fact of organisational life – especially for managers – so there’s no point hoping they can be avoided, says the chief executive of the Australian Institute of Management for Victoria and Tasmania, Susan Heron.

She says an important factor to keep in mind when initiating an awkward conversation is that there is another person on the other side of the table.

“These are difficult conversations and you have to be skilled in getting the message across,” Heron says.

“If the problem is underperformance, for example, it’s important to make sure that he or she understands where they’re going wrong and how they can address the problem so that the individual has a chance to turn the situation around.

“It’s about respect for the other person but also being aware that you represent your organisation. It’s knowing how best to approach the conversation, being alert to areas of sensitivity, legally and personally, and making sure that nothing is said that insults the person or appears as flippant or uncaring.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that some people are not naturally gifted conversationalists. The real surprise is that managers can make their way up the corporate ladder without those skills.

Corporate communications coach Brett Rutledge says spoken communication is the primary tool of leadership – whether in front of 1000 people, in a boardroom or to a single colleague across a coffee table. And yet, Rutledge laments, there is “a crisis of self-expression in the business world with people who literally can’t make their point”.

“A lot of leaders forget that the most trusted form of communications is verbal communications,” he says.

Presumably they had those skills as they made their way up the corporate ladder, but Rutledge says that the higher they go, the more remote they become as communicators.

“As they move through their career, there’s a pressure to conform, to change the way they speak or come across. In effect they’re being asked to become an actor,” he says.

“What people want is for leaders to be genuine and that’s the one thing that many leaders have trouble with. We have a business culture that is producing automatons who are largely interchangeable.”

One of the greatest obstacles to effective communication is the use of jargon and language that invites suspicion, or worse, ridicule. Rutledge urges clients to simplify their language, speak plainly and unambiguously, and treat their audience with respect.

“If you spoke to your friends and family the way you speak to people at work, they’d think you’re an idiot. Why do you think people at work think any differently?” he says.

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