Janet Brady, PhD

Organisational Linguist

Lost Art of Managerial Communication Skills

Managerial CommunicationHow can managerial communication skills be a lost art? Don’t leadership development programs help managers develop communication skills?

You don’t have to have a business degree or be accredited by a professional association to work as a manager. But as any subordinate knows, effective managers have developed the art of management.

Unfortunately, many large organisations forget that managerial communication is also an art, especially when needed for developing leaders and managers.

Here are three reasons why.

# 1 Using abstract models and principles

Leadership training programs rely on abstract models and principles. For example, when I attended my research site’s training program for first- and second-level managers (the company has five levels), training sessions that focused on communication included:

  • Recognising personality types and the communication strategies preferred by each type.
  • Learning a number of abstract principles that support delivering constructive criticism, such as “making it safe”. 
  • Reviewing the steps involved when active listening and identifying its “do’s” and “don’ts”.
  • Role plays for managers to practice performance coaching and giving feedback using the above models and principles.

The problem with these models is that they bear little resemblance to how effective managers communicate in practice, especially when they are responsible for developing leaders and the managers in their team.

An alternative to using these models is the case-method, used by business schools such as Harvard, IESE and Ivey. Business cases simulate complex problems that need resolving.

Cases providing learning resources for developing professional communication skills use transcripts of audio-recorded or video-recordings of workplace interactions. In the context of health communication, examples include improving handover practices at shift changes in emergency departments (Iedema et al., 2009), teaching genetic counselling (Sarangi, 2010), and developing GP educators responsible for training registrars (WentWest, 2009).

If cases illustrating doctor-patient interactions are being used in the training of doctors, why aren’t cases of manager-subordinate(s) interactions being used in the training of managers?

Analysing examples of actual workplace interactions during a range of development activities provide managers with concrete examples of communication strategies that they can then experiment with and apply in their own practice.

# 2 Overplaying the role of coaching

Performance coaching has been widely adopted by large organisations as their key type of developmental activity. This type of coaching originates in sports coaching, where it is used by coaches to tweak the performance of talented and already skilled athletes.

In contrast, managers responsible for developing leaders and other managers engage in many types of developmental activities, each type of activity requiring a different combination of communication strategies.

One way of recognising these other types of developmental activities is to think about the communicative goal of an interaction or meeting. Some examples of activities and goals from my research data include the following:

  • Briefing, in which an experienced manager prepares a less experienced manager for an emergent situation.
  • Teaching, whereby an experienced manager provides feedback and suggestions for improving the performance of a novel task.
  • Narrating, in which the experienced manager tells a story and in doing so, provides the less experienced manager with concrete and meaningful examples to illustrate a managerial practice.

The success or otherwise of these three activities depends upon an experienced manager’s ability to articulate role knowledge. This ability relies upon not only a willingness to share this knowledge, but also the individual manager’s expertise in using communication strategies such as framing and reframing, explaining, and apprising.

Although performance coaching is now a compulsory component of many managers’ communication tool kits, it appears to have high jacked the training agenda.

While coaching is claimed by some to contribute 20% of total learning in the workplace (see my previous post on the 70 20 10 model), other types of developmental activities contribute to 70% of total learning; that is, learning on-the-job.

Importantly, with the current focus on performance coaching, leadership training programs fail to prepare managers for these other types of developmental activities used for developing leaders and other managers.

# 3 Restricting the use of expertise and experience

360-degree performance assessment and other evaluation tools are now commonly used to ensure that managers enact the practices they are taught in leadership training programs. One of the unforeseen consequences of these evaluation tools is that the communication models become institutionalised rules rather than a guide.

To illustrate how this works in practice, I will use an example from my research. Some experienced managers and I analysed a transcript of an interaction between one manager and her subordinate manager. I considered the manager was undertaking a teaching activity and provided some useful examples of how to maintain a relationship while giving negative feedback.

In contrast, the experienced managers were horrified at the manager’s communicative performance in the transcript. They considered that this manager had failed to ask the right type of questions and as a consequence, did not empower her subordinate to come up with his own solution. These experienced managers were applying their knowledge of performance coaching to a teaching activity because this is what they are taught to do and rewarded for doing.

While a sports coaching model may be appropriate to use with an expert athlete, should such a model be used as the generic, “one-size-fits-all” development activity when developing a manager who may lack the knowledge, understanding and insight as to where he or she is going wrong?

Experienced managers accumulate an extensive repertoire of communication strategies and practices through their working lives, often gained in a variety of roles and organisations. Unfortunately, organisations and its members neither recognise nor value this expertise. It has become the lost art of managerial communication.

References:

  1. Iedema, R., Merrick, E. T., Kerridge, R., Herkes, R., Lee, B., Anscombe, M., . . . White, L. (2009). Handover — Enabling learning in communication for safety (HELiCS): A report on achievements at two hospital sites. Medical Journal of Australia, 190(11), S133-S136.
  2. Sarangi, S. (2010). The spatial and temporal dimensions of reflective questions in genetic counselling. In A. Freed & S. Ehrlich (Eds.), “Why Do You Ask?”: The Function of Questions in Institutional Discourse (pp. 235‐255). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. WentWest. (2009). Linguistics program used in registrar training. Training Tabloid, 3(1), 1.
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