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How to communicate with subordinates

Today’s leadership needs to appreciate that the key to better performance is good communication. Experience has shown that leadership and various management initiatives are premised on one common factor, sharing of information for the benefit of the organisation, and that is communication.

Emmanuel Jinda

A number of structures such as the workers’ committee, news bulletins etc. have been established as communication enablers. Such techniques enable the conveyance and gathering of information needed to bring about change. What is now juicy news is that these familiar techniques though used correctly, actually inhibit the communication that the 21st century corporations require. I have observed managers talking to subordinates at every level in order to find out what actually goes on in organisations. But, do we ask the right questions to allow communication?

Or when leaders do so, they will be preventing employees from providing indepth information, insightful behaviour and productive change needed to cope with the much more complex problems of organisational renewal. What mostly comes out of such strategies are cafeteria and parking issues but nothing strategic. The deep and potentially threatening or embarrassing information that motivate learning and produce real change is not obtained.

Organisations are faced with extraordinarily complex issues and these should be exposed to allow open debate for an array of possible solutions.

Encouraging communication promotes decision-thinking teams.

Notably, employees are very good and quick at picking management blindness and timidity. We may as leaders persistently prefer using the derogatory boss approach not knowing at all that this approach does not get subordinates to reflect on their work and behaviour. We need not employ single loop approaches, as a one-dimensional question also elicits a one-dimensional answer. Recently I had an opportunity to listen to a supervisor who was
communicating with a subordinate. Although the leader appeared like he was asking the subordinate about a work operation, in actual fact he indirectly was expressing dismay. I heard him say, “Where are the tractors ploughing now, I want to go there?” In response the subordinate tried to provide some double loop response explaining that as at that hour no one had paid for the services, but however, it was possible that someone could phone anytime. He then went on a blaming game, where the supervisor was accusing the subordinate of not saying the truth.

He insisted he wanted a straight answer that the tractors had not been hired. Surprisingly before the end of the day, three people had paid for the services of the tractor. I saw the subordinate frustrated to the bone as it meant working during the holidays.

Allow employees to share first-hand experiences about their jobs. More often than not, solutions and initiatives that will improve performance lie within
the subordinates. When communicating, do not censor what everyone needs to say and hear. For the sake of morale and considerateness, managers often deprive employees and themselves of the opportunity to take responsibility for their own behaviour by learning to understand more. What I also saw from the cited example was the usage of socially upbeat behaviour to inhibit learning.

Leaders need to see readily how they inhibit learning and our reasons could lie in deeper and more psychological motives. Such one-dimensional loop communication make the whole communication between leadership and subordinates tense. Subordinates are not at times allowed to ask the motives behind a given fact. Every time we are communicating with subordinates, we need to be cognisant that the moment we involve potential threat or embarrassment, rigorous reasoning goes right out of the window and defensive reasoning takes over. Defensive reasoning serves no purpose except self-protection.

Paradoxically, those who use it rarely acknowledge that they are protecting themselves.

Double loop form of communication which allows for more steps to enable subordinates to ask leaders questions are a better option. As leaders we need to appreciate that there are two closely related mechanisms at work all the time we communicate the social and psychological. The social appears as if a leader is putting a subordinate on the spot. This is what happened in the cited example.

Why supervisors instinctively and thoroughly avoid the double learning form is psychological. In some cases, employees open Pandora boxes which leaders may not be prepared to deal with. It is best practice to desist from gathering data in sloppy and self-serving ways, once we do this we are seen as blaming employees. Employees view this approach as having psychological connotations where a leader would be trying to express a negative message but does it subtly. Let us try to avoid vulnerability, risk and embarrassment and any appearance of incompetence in our messages. Try to avoid the management’s “benevolent” censorship of true but negative messages. Leaders be cognisant that good communication promotes learning and builds decision-thinking teams.

Jinda is the managing consultant of PROSERVE Consulting Group, a leading supplier of professional human resources and management services locally, regionally and internationally. He can be contacted at Tel: 263 773004143 or 263 242 772778 or visit our website at www.proservehr.com.

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