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Vertical Communication: What Can Managers Do Differently?

Posted by Jessica Miller-Merrell

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In a perfect world, the lines of communication between management and employees are wide open, with both parties able to share their thoughts and concerns freely, honestly, and genuinely, without fear of repercussions. However, in this imperfect world of ours, there are many things that employees can’t or won’t say to their managers, and vice versa. As in every aspect of life, improved communication at work would result in more productive relationships.

What Aren’t Employees Saying?

The infinite number of situations employees find themselves in gives rise to employees thinking any number of things they will probably never say to their managers. When those thoughts are counterproductive or come from knee-jerk emotional reactions, it’s probably a good idea that employees hold their tongues. But there are some common situations where it would be useful for employees to speak up instead of restraining themselves.

Employees complain among themselves, and rightfully so, about getting mixed messages from their bosses. Of course, bosses are human and fall prey to the same habits as everyone else. One of these habits (and it’s a bad habit) is giving mixed messages: saying one thing and doing another, a person’s words and actions don’t coincide. A manager may say something affirming to a subordinate and never follow it up with actions. For example, a boss may tell an employee that they respect them or trust them or that they are excelling on the job and deserve more responsibility, but never follow up with tasks or duties that reflect that trust. The employee is left wondering what’s really going on, and whether the manager’s respect is genuine. But the employee is not going to risk their paycheck by saying, “Hey, what’s up with your empty promises?”

Some employees would like to let their managers know that it is possible to have a “closer” relationship – but not the way the manager may be tackling it. As an effort towards building a relationship, managers may initiate conversations regarding an employee’s personal life, but they often go about it all wrong. When a manager asks surface-level questions, or repeats questions they’ve asked before, employees are left wondering if the manager cares a whit, or if the manager has ever listened to them in the past. Asking employees about their family, their interests, and their life outside of work is a good thing – as long as the manager takes the time and makes the effort to remember these conversations. Conversely, a manager may talk a lot about his or her own interests. Revealing oneself is a good stepping-stone on the path to a better relationship – as long as the path goes both ways. If the manager has not taken the time to get to know the employees, such self-revelations are likely to come off more as bragging or self-centeredness than as a desire to build a relationship with the employee. But of course, the employee will never say that.

There are countless more examples, and the solutions all rest on listening, communicating and investing.

What Holds Them Back?

Employees don’t share what’s on their minds because they fear the possible consequences. No one wants to be perceived as the employee or team member who rocks the boat. Fear of rejection, retaliation, or punishment is a powerful deterrent.
There is good news, though – management can help create the necessary change. Communication is the key to success, and bosses who communicate openly, honestly and transparently with their employees are more likely to have their employees do so in return. For example, if job responsibilities are changing or a new policy is being implemented, show employees that they are respected by telling them the reason for changes, and encouraging questions and discussion for better understanding. Successful vertical communication doesn’t occur overnight, but with continual practice, managers can develop and encourage open lines of communication, and change the culture for more success and productivity.

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About Jessica Miller-Merrell

Author

Jessica is listed as the 2nd most influential recruiter online and as the 8th most powerful woman on Twitter. She is the author of Tweet This! Twitter for Business, a how-to business guide for Twitter users. She also writes for a number of leading publications, including Fortune, HR Magazine, SmartBrief, and HR Executive Magazine.

3 COMMENTS Join the discussion
  • Adele P. August, 06, 2015

    How important is all that trust? People are doing their job, that’s all. Good or bad, a manager shouldn’t become a shoulder to cry on for anyone who is dissatisfied or grieving. I like dividing lines between bosses and employees. And I wouldn’t like to blur these lines.

  • Steve White August, 08, 2015

    I think that when your managers show that they really care about what you have to say, communication problems don’t even arise. But when talking to your manager is not much different from talking to a brick wall, it shouldn’t be a surprise when employees don’t want to open up.

  • Laurie M. August, 12, 2015

    The extent to which employees are ready to communicate openly always depends on their boss and his or her willingness and ability to attract and encourage people in such communication.

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Guest August, 12, 2015