Communication between a leader and their team: a cautionary tale

Recently I met with a small group of staff from a unit that has gone through a number of changes in the last two years. For Employee #1, this was her last day of work. She had resigned and was leaving the University without any job prospects. When I asked why she chose to move on, she responded, “I just couldn’t face one more day at work. It was affecting my health and my personal life.” Digging a little deeper, I learned she joined the university about four years ago. She initially loved her job and planned to retire from the university in about 25 years or so. She enjoyed the people she worked with and the challenges she faced in her role. Her teammates were devastated that she was leaving and were just as sad that they were staying. According to all of them, their present manager did not appreciate nor value the work they were doing, let alone understand the detailed steps that were needed to complete each task. Unreasonable deadlines were expected and the boss never offered to help. Each one of them felt as though no one really cared about them personally and that if they got “hit by a bus,” their boss would be annoyed that they weren’t coming to work. 

A few days later I received a call asking if I could meet with someone as soon as possible. Fortunately, I had some time available later that day and by mid-afternoon the visitor and I were sitting in my office. As soon as we sat down and I briefly explained how the Ombuds office operates, the visitor began crying uncontrollably while simultaneously apologizing for crying. After the crying ceased and she felt ready to talk,  she shared her story: She had moved here about a year ago based on an offer to head up an exciting project. At the last minute, she was informed she would be managing a small team that had been working together for a few years. She had no experience leading a group and was initially hesitant to do so. Her supervisor assured her that the employees were hard workers who needed very little oversight and preferred to be left alone to get their work done. Initially she tried to have quarterly staff meetings and learned quickly through the grapevine that these were perceived as micro-managing and wasting valuable time. She occasionally sent group emails to the team with suggested timetables for completing work assignments thinking it would help keep the momentum going and offer some structure. According to her, no matter how pleasant and positive her emails were, rarely did she receive any sort of meaningful response. She felt isolated and underappreciated and was seriously considering looking for another job.

By now you’ve probably figured out that these two instances were related. The employees and the boss were suffering unnecessarily and the saddest part is that this all could have been prevented by engaged communication amongst one another. 

According to a survey conducted by  Working Group Employee Communication at IULM University in Milan between October 2016 and April 2017, the following criteria is needed to promote engaged communications between leaders and their teams: “dialogue between managers and employees to give information or to explain objectives; plans and strategies, project groups; top-down communication; informal conversations aimed at soliciting employee feedback; newsletters, blogs and e-mails; and conventions.”

In an article in Insights, engaging employees is challenging and necessary. As a supervisor, finding how to properly communicate with team members is essential. The article states, “[c]ommunicating with your employees regularly helps ensure everyone understands the business objectives and goals, as well as their place in achieving it. But with ever-changing technology and new ways to communicate being developed every day, businesses must ensure that they’re reaching their people in a way that suits them. While a printed memo might have done the trick a few decades ago, those days are long gone and organizations must now tackle the challenges of communicating to many generations of employees at once…”

In the scenario presented above, I believe a number of well-intentioned actions, such as the timetable which the employees perceived was a demand from their boss, could have easily been addressed proactively. As the Insights article suggests, “…simple activities like leaders simply leaving their offices and walking around the business, taking time to stop and authentically say hello, or creating a monthly opportunity where 3-4 employees are randomly selected to have a “Kit-Kat” break with a senior leader where they can ask any question on their mind can go a long way in enhancing engagement.”

If only the new boss had taken the time to learn for herself how her team works and how she could support them from the get-go, the slippery slope of miscommunication could have been avoided. In addition, had any of the team members chosen to reach out to the boss seeking clarity or an understanding of the boss’ expectations, they might have averted inaccurate storytelling. In the end, both sides failed to utilize engaged communication and the outcome has been detrimental to the organization. One team member is moving on and at least one more person is considering leaving. Morale, productivity and trust are low. This is just one example in which everyone involved contributed to an ineffective and non-collaborative working group. The reality is this type of behavior happens all the time in every type of organization. 

Learning how to effectively communicate and work well with one another benefits everyone; the team, the boss, and as importantly the organization. Money, time, energy, effort, attitude, productivity, and feelings of worth can improve significantly when thoughtful engagement is consistently incorporated in the work environment. 

For additional help in effective, engaged communication, please consider contacting your campus Ombuds or signing up for Crucial Conversations.

By Melissa Connell, Ombuds Director, University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus

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