Dear Managers: Employees Cannot Read Your Mind

What is the most common management challenge I’ve heard in organizations over the last month? Multiple conversations from different sectors highlighted virtually the same problem – employees being left in the dark by their managers.

Most organizations have experienced, educated, intelligent managers on staff. So why aren’t they able to communicate effectively?

In my observation, there are two reasons:

1. Pace – rare is the organization that moves slowly these days; most are busy ecosystems. So much happens quickly at a senior level that if there’s no mechanism to share info downline, confusion ensues. Rumours take flight. When leaders finally realize there’s something afoot, they are often incredulous; “how is what I said confusing? Where did that rumour start? I just don’t get it; that’s ridiculous” which only exacerbates the core issue. I once observed an executive team (ET) start sending out company-wide meeting notes after their regular meetings. While not all details could be shared, this simple exercise changed the air of transparency and left little room for the rumour mill to start. Someone from the communications team attended each meeting, typed up a brief summary, and each VP was tasked with sending it out within 24hrs to their departments. Not only did it pull back the curtains and make the ET more transparent, it also kept VPs accountable to share with their teams.

2. Lack of awareness – let’s be honest. How many managers and leaders out there are being given regular feedback by their teams or own superiors? If left unchecked, bad habits can run amok. When I hear stories of a manager demonstrating poor behaviour, the first thing I think of is, who is that person’s boss? Leaders in general often get a free pass on tough feedback or developing themselves, based upon the false pre-tense that they’ve “made it” and don’t need it as much as others. Opportunities to develop on the job are endless, and leaders need to adopt that mindset to continually get better.

As a manager, how can you avoid these traps?

1. Create a mechanism for sharing information. Never have we had so many tools available to disseminate data, and yet confusion still eats away productivity levels. Whether it’s weekly 1:1s with direct reports, weekly team huddle calls/emails, monthly team Zoom chats, Slack channels, group texts, etc. Find a consistent rhythm to share important details with your team. It fascinates me how much this still happens and how easily it can be avoided. Just last week I had two calls from people frustrated that their managers are never available to meet with them 1:1 because they are too busy. That excuse does not hold weight – leaders need to be accessible to their people!

2. Ask for an honest critique. Managers need to open the door to hear feedback because the reality is, most employees will always be hesitant. Such is the power dynamic. If managers don’t acknowledge that and create space for trust and honesty, no one else will. For example, simply stating at a team meeting that you’ll be seeking more feedback moving forward is a start. Questions like, “what should I start doing, stop doing, continue doing?” Or “if you were me, what’s one change you’d make in how you lead the team?” Yes, it may be awkward and not gain traction as quickly as you hope, but if you’re consistent and your team sees you’re genuinely trying to get better for their sake, feedback should start coming your way.

3. Have a sense of humour – leave the “know-it-all persona” for Hollywood movies. We need more managers who lead with humility and can laugh at, and own, their mistakes. For example, part of that call I had last week involved a story of an employee fumbling through a presentation to senior leaders – all because of a data error their boss was responsible for. That boss was in the presentation and could have owned their mistake and protected their employee. What did they do? Nothing. The employee was embarrassed, and looked less than favourable in front of senior leaders they rarely get face time with. Is that employee likely to give more discretionary effort moving forward? Doubt it.  As a manager, don’t take yourself so seriously – have a sense of humour about your blindspots and own up to your mistakes.