Quiz offers answers on staying in touch with employees

Here’s a communication quiz for managers:

1. Do you often say, "I have an open door policy"?

If you do, I suspect the communication in your department leaves a lot to be desired. Why? Because it suggests that you are too passive. If you think that things are rolling along smoothly because you haven’t had anyone come in and complain or ask your advice, you may be in for a big surprise. I’ve often heard employees comment that they don’t want to bother their manager with a small problem (which, of course, often becomes a bigger problem). They also feel intimidated by the process of setting up a meeting with the boss to talk about something, or worse, trying to catch him or her on the fly. In addition, employees don’t want to be labeled a pest or a pet and if they frequent the boss’s office they risk both labels.

Tips: Each day, get out from behind your desk and take the long way to the copy machine or break room. Stop and listen to employees. (If they act surprised or uncomfortable, they’ll get over it if you keep it up.)

If you want to keep communications open, hold regular weekly meetings to discuss issues. If you only have monthly meetings, they either become too long or they are nothing more than reporting sessions because there is too much time between them to make them relevant to day-to-day problem solving.

2. Do the people who report to you pass down information to their employees or co-workers following meetings?

You’re kidding yourself if you think they do this consistently. I once worked with the President of a company who felt that he was covering all the communication bases because he was having productive planning sessions with his management staff about a new program "These people are paid to communicate with their staffs," he said. He was surprised with the resistance that came from employees when the initiative was launched. Many employees had never heard a word about it or their manager had not gathered enough input on potential problems.

Tips: When new or sensitive changes are being made, managers need to develop a "Communication Plan." Part of that plan should include face-to-face town hall meetings, lead by managers and executives, where employees can ask questions. In addition, managers can be given "talking points" that cover the questions and answers that are expected from employees, so everyone is saying the same thing.

Finally, during your regular manager staff meeting, periodically ask each manager to go back to his or her respective group and gather input from employees on pending decisions and bring it back to the next meeting. You will soon see who is following through and who isn’t.

3. Do you ever feel out of touch with your employees’ issues and ideas?

If you think your suggestion box is taking care of the problem, think again. Even in small companies, it’s so easy to become disconnected from employees and co-workers. Sometimes it takes a crisis before a manager realizes that he or she has become too distant. For example, a manager I was working with had had a large part of his team defect to the competition before he admitted he had been too preoccupied with administrative issues and spent too little time being a leader.

Tips: Managers need to say, "What do you think we should do?" more than, "Here’s what I think we should do." I heard about the president of an airline who takes one day out of the month to work side-by-side with employees in various parts of the business. One month he may check in passengers, the next month he may load baggage. There’s nothing like a good day in the trenches to get an eye and earful, and it doesn’t hurt customer relations any, either.

Another company I know has periodic internal focus groups (they found that employee surveys didn’t help them flesh out internal issues well enough to do anything about them).

4. Do you see people or departments finger pointing at one another?

If you do, there’s often more trouble here than simple personality conflicts. It often signals a lack of understanding about who does what or unclear goals. It is a symptom that will only get worse and always affects the customer.

Tips: Institute job rotations, internal internships or special projects that can last from six months to a year. It is a fresh developmental experience for employees, which also builds deeper understanding and empathy about other areas of the company.

The Gap, in San Francisco, sends all the corporate staff into the retail stores once a year, so they get a first-hand experience selling merchandise to customers.

Another company regularly sends engineers and other technicians out with sales people to experience life on the other side of the business and help with customer problems.

Another company has an internal "career day" to explain what different departments do. An idea that we have seen work quite successfully is the cross-functional, weekly huddle. Managers bring one employee (each week the person rotates) to a one-hour huddle for the purpose of discussing current work in progress that cuts across department lines. All decisions are recorded and available for all employees to see. The manager/employee team is responsible for going back to their own work groups to have a short huddle of their own.

5. Are you ever surprised about what people say in exit interviews (You DO do exit interviews, don’t you?)

Although exit interviews are often tight-lipped and PC, sometimes people will open up about the real reasons for their departure. If you don’t ask why people are leaving, you may keep the turnstile spinning unnecessarily. Some employees will never be happy, no matter what you do, but letting managers off the hook too easily is a big mistake.

Tips: Some companies use outsiders to conduct exit interviews. They get more candid responses. I know a company who feeds back the information to managers and expects to see action plans about changes.

One company takes these interviews into account at salary review time…they expect managers to retain good employees and find ways to satisfy them on the job.

Other companies ask outsiders to interview former customers to find out what the company can do to improve retention. This information is then used to do action planning with front line employees.

We have worked with many companies to implement processes and ideas like these. The one common denominator in all of the situations we’ve seen is this: the manager is the key. He or she is the link between the employee and the company. Communication can’t be an add-on activity; it has to be a primary responsibility for every manager. It’s one of the most important things they do. They can make time now or take twice as much time later.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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