Managers don’t have enough high quality conversations with their direct reports, according to Ann Phillips, a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies. This deficiency has a negative effect on both productivity and morale.
“Part of effective communication between manager and direct report is a mindset and part is a skillset. Both are required,” says Phillips. “It’s easy for managers to convince themselves they don’t have time for quality conversations, especially when they aren’t particularly interested in having them and don’t really know how to do it.
“Every manager I’ve worked with has so much of their own work to do all day, every day, that some can’t see their way clear to spending time with the folks who work for them—other than performance reviews, rushed interactions, or crises,” explains Phillips. “Conversations between these managers and their people are mostly manager-led directives of ‘this is what I want you to do; here’s how to do it.’ The manager is focused on getting stuff done and on what needs to happen—not on their direct reports’ career growth or needs.
“Unfortunately, when individual contributors in this scenario become managers, they treat people exactly the way they were treated. Sub-quality conversations become a cultural norm.”
The good news, according to Phillips, is that managers can learn to be more effective in their work conversations.
“If a manager has the right mindset and training, it’ll drive the right behavior,” says Phillips. She recommends focusing on three specific conversations to get started.
The Goal-Setting Conversation
“All good performance begins with clear goals. Effective goal-setting conversations begin with clarity—what to do, by when, and what a good job looks like,” says Phillips. “Be specific—and don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s critically important to take the time to make sure both parties are interpreting the same words in the same way to avoid misunderstandings.
“Conversations and relationships can go sideways when people interpret things differently but don’t have a conversation about that interpretation. Never assume!”
This leads to the second important conversation at which managers need to excel—giving feedback.
The Feedback Conversation
“A friend of mine recently told me I tend to hijack conversations,” says Phillips. “The funny thing is, I was just about to tell her she does the same thing! We discovered that what I interpret as hijacking and what she interprets as hijacking are two different things.
“We talked about how, when she’s talking and pauses to think, I rush in to fill the empty space. It goes back to my experience at home. In my family, you talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, and there are no pauses. So when my friend goes silent, I fill in the gap and start talking about something.
“Then I explained to her that I feel she hijacks the conversation when I tell her about something happening in my life and she immediately turns it into a discussion about something that’s happening in her life. It’s related, but it still feels to me like she is making it about her.
“Because we are committed to our friendship, we’re willing to discuss things that are uncomfortable and to consider each other’s point of view. That’s important at work, too. Managers and direct reports need to have the type of relationship where they can talk honestly. When a manager cares about a direct report as a human being—and vice versa—they build up an emotional bank account they can draw from. That allows them to have difficult conversations when they need to.”
Sadly, the word feedback has a negative connotation in business today, says Phillips.
“People seldom think of feedback as praise or recognition. When people hear that word, they think at best it’s going to be constructive criticism. But it rarely feels constructive—it just feels like criticism.
“It’s another area where most managers don’t have the skills they need—especially feedback around performance improvement and redirection. Managers are so concerned about how someone might respond to feedback, they tend to avoid it altogether.”
One way managers can be more successful when preparing to give feedback is to make sure they are coming at it from the right place.
“Your feedback can’t be based on your own personal agenda,” says Phillips. “It has to be about helping other people be successful or otherwise improving the team. If you come from a personal agenda, your feedback will come across poorly.
“In my conversation with my friend, she gave me the feedback about the way I hijack conversations because she wanted our conversations to be better. I knew that, and it gave me a chance to think about my behavior and run it over in my mind. That was a good learning for me—to recognize that behavior I picked up from my family might be misinterpreted when I’m dealing with other people.”
The One-on-One Conversation
Listening and focusing on the other person’s agenda is especially important when managers conduct one-on-one conversations with their direct reports, says Phillips.
“It’s easy to fall into the manager’s agenda, where one-on-ones can turn into a review of how the direct report is doing on each of their goals. At The Ken Blanchard Companies, we teach managers to schedule semi-monthly one-on-ones, where the agenda is driven by the individual contributor and what they need.”
The manager’s primary role is to listen and provide support, says Phillips. Senior leaders are generally better at this than are new managers.
“At the senior levels of an organization, a VP typically will have more experience asking a direct report how things are going and finding out what the direct report needs to succeed. As you move down to the frontlines of an organization, managers are less experienced at taking the lead in a conversation like that.”
Especially at the frontlines, Phillips observes, managers and supervisors need training in how to have effective one-on-one conversations. Otherwise, the direct report is likely to default to the manager and ask the manager what they want talk about.
“It’s important to teach managers to ask open-ended questions about what an individual contributor’s needs are. Suppose the direct report comes into the meeting with a blank piece of paper and says, ‘What do you want talk about?’ The manager should take that opening and say, ‘Let’s talk about some things you are working on. Let’s list the three or four tasks, discuss your development level, and talk about how I can help you.’ Eventually, that direct report will become more proactive and learn to take the lead in those conversations.”
It’s a process and a joint responsibility—one where everybody benefits, says Phillips.
“Leaders influence through the power of their conversations. Train your managers—and your individual contributors—in the skills they need for more effective conversations at work. It’s one of the best ways to improve performance and satisfaction.”