Friday, January 20, 2012

Good Communication Helps Actions Match Intentions

Managers can be people focused, task focused or a balance (of sorts) of the two.

Background: When a new manager, who was concerned for his people, found himself in the situation where the relationship with his team deteriorated he jumped into action aiming to help sort out the issues. One employee was hardly using full sentences to communicate with the manager while others where being 'stand-off-ish' and far less social as normal.

What started it all off was the manager noticing an employee's performance slipping: coming in late, leaving early, work quality dropping, submitting work late, etc. In an effort to understand the situation the manager decided to do a little background checking first.

The manager asked a few of the team members if they knew of any issues the employee was facing. The manager's intentions were pure; he didn't want to be reactive and rash, he thought by taking some time to investigate what may be going on he could be more proactive and supportive in helping the employee.

After speaking with a few other employees, the manager didn't have any better insight into the situation. Before the manager could set up a meeting with the employee to deal with the performance issue, a big project came in and took up the manager's full attention and time for most of the following week. In the meantime, the gossip grape wine flourished, it got around that the manager was asking 1) 'people to spy on the employee'; 2) 'people to betray the employee's trust'; and 3) that the manager was trying to get some 'dirt' on the employee. (If you've ever played the game Chinese Whispers you'll know that the message sent at the beginning of the line will get twisted and muddled up by the time the message gets to the last person.)

Lesson: The manager meant well and couldn't understand why the situation had turned so sour so quickly. The lesson for the manager is that humans tend to judge actions rather than intentions. If the manager reflects on his actions in the context of how others would have viewed them, what he might learn or do differently in the future could be:

    * to not approach the team about the employee, at least initially.

    * to speak directly with the employee, remember that asking about the possible impacts on work performance is not prying.

    * the employee need not disclose anything that is deeply personal, rather discuss the impact on his behaviour at work, with a view to finding ways for the employee to receive some support.

    * even with other priorities coming in, such as the new project, even a quick initial conversation may have started to open the lines of communication or at least alerted the employee that the manager has noticed his performance. Remembering that employees are a company's greatest asset.

    * if asking the opinions of other employees, to reinforce the confidentiality of the conversation and that no one was in trouble, and the questioning is based on concern for welfare.

Good intentions are often ignored - probably because they are not as obvious as actions - in comparison to the judgement of peoples actions. When you are well intended yet your actions have been misinterpreted by others or your actions don't seem to go as planned, what could you do differently to match action with intention?

Sally Foley-Lewis is an expert in fast tracking new manager productivity. She empowers new managers to develop the skills needed to be successful, effective and satisfied in their new manager role.

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