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April 10, 2023

6 Communication Skills Every Manager Should Master


If you spend any time with managers these days, you’ll notice one theme quite quickly: the post-pandemic work world has them feeling overwhelmed.

Many managers are unprepared to communicate about complex and sensitive topics, such as business uncertainty and changing customer needs, remote vs. in-office decisions, changes in strategy, restructures and layoffs, people and workplace culture issues, growing demands to do more with less, the need for greater speed and agility, and leading through change.

And this is just a starter list.

Why Do Managers Need Good Communication Skills?

This reality translates to one critical finding for top executives and communicators: managers need new communication skills and support to navigate the current world of work.

These 6 skills are what we’ve identified as the most critical to master today. We take each one apart to help leaders understand how important they are.

But first, let’s underscore just why more effective communication skills for managers is such a pressing concern:

  1. Employees are extremely disengaged. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report found 60% of people are emotionally detached at work and 19% are miserable. Jon Clifton, CEO of Gallup, wrote in the report’s introduction that employee burnout can be attributed to several key factors: unfair treatment, unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressure. “Those five causes have one thing in common,” Clifton wrote. “Your boss.” He went on to say that “a manager’s effect on a workplace is so significant that Gallup can predict 70% of the variance in team engagement just by getting to know the boss.”
  2. Better trained and skilled managers have been shown to make a major impact. In the Gallup Global Workplace report, Clifton also noted that building the capabilities of managers is one of the key ways to build better workplaces. “The real fix is this simple: better leaders in the workplace. Managers need to be better listeners, coaches and collaborators. Great managers help colleagues learn and grow, recognize their colleagues for doing great work, and make them feel truly cared about. In environments like this, workers thrive.” 
  3. A growing number of managers report that they need more support to do their jobs better, and communication-related skills are often looked to as a top need. In a 2022 Harvard Business Review article entitled “Managers Can’t Do It All,” Diane Gherson, the recently retired chief human resources officer for IBM, and Lynda Gratton, a London Business School professor, reported that most managers are struggling to keep up. The challenges they confront are wide-ranging, including digitization, agile initiatives, and the move to remote work, just to name a few. 
    “We have closely observed the changing job of the manager, and we can report that a crisis is looming,” Gherson and Gratton wrote. “The signs are everywhere. In 2021, when we asked executives from 60 companies around the world how their managers were doing, we got unanimous reports of frustration and exhaustion.”
    The researchers also pointed out a recent report from the research firm Gartner, which asked 75 HR leaders from companies worldwide how their managers were faring. Gartner said 68% of HR leaders reported that their managers were overwhelmed. Leaders also said that the number of workers reporting to them has skyrocketed, making it harder to provide closer personal attention. So what’s the solution for manager burnout? The 60 executives that Gratton and Gherson surveyed identified “coaching, communication and employee well-being” as the most important areas to focus on with managers today.

6 Must-Have Communication Skills for Managers

In working with teams across industries, we’ve seen leaders make big strides in employee engagement by focusing on these six key manager communication skills. These strategies, especially when combined as an overall strategic practice, help build far better manager/employee relationships and stronger business outcomes.

Given all the needs of managers today, here are the six winning skills to focus on:

1. Listen and check for understanding

To make communication effective, leaders need to learn what’s working well, what’s not, and most importantly, how things can be better. That involves listening – and listening some more.

Leaders should ask broad, probing, open-ended questions, which allow the listener to take the conversation in a direction they choose, such as:

  • “Help me understand…”
  • “How do you envision…”
  • “What other strategic alternative did you consider?”

Leaders should consistently ask employees for feedback and also consider:

  • What environment employees would be most comfortable sharing input (feedback channels can be informal or formal)
  • The leader’s personal motivation for getting feedback (and how to share that with employees)
  • How best to engage people fully and truly listen to what they have to say

Finally, follow up on employee ideas so team members know their voice matters. What leaders do with feedback speaks volumes to employees.

“To say that a person feels listened to means a lot more than just their ideas get heard. It's a sign of respect. It makes people feel valued.” — Deborah Tannen, Georgetown University

“Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable – and one of the least understood. Most captains of industry listen only sometimes, and they remain ordinary leaders. But a few, the great ones, never stop listening. That's how they get word before anyone else of unseen problems and opportunities.” — Peter Nulty, Fortune Magazine

2: Create a shared vision for the entire team

Every employee comes into the workplace with his or her own context, a mixture of culture, memories, upbringing and experiences. Part of the role of a manager is to create a shared vision for the entire team. Managers should ensure employees understand the big picture and how they fit in. They need to constantly communicate the “why” behind the business plan: why the plan is important, the role the team plays and the critical contribution that each employee can make to the team’s success.

Every time a manager communicates with an employee, they should answer these questions that all employees naturally have: 

  • What’s my job?
  • What’s in it for me?
  • Why should I care?

Leaders need to link what’s happening at the larger organization to their department in real time and make it a point to talk about how employees’ work relates to the company’s success.

When managers fail to set context and paint the larger picture, they contribute to the silo mentality, one in which employees can’t see why their individual contributions matter.

One of the smartest ways to equip leaders with these skills is to create a “leader toolkit” and a frequently asked questions (FAQs) document, which gives leaders a quick reference point for the key messages related to any major new initiative or strategic direction. The toolkits can be rolled out through a “just in time” training session, in which top leaders either facilitate or are available for questions. Another option is to release the toolkit as a simple presentation that’s distributed to all leaders, preferably launched with a CEO note or conference call for reinforcement.

These resources are important to helping leaders understand and internalize what’s happening and feel prepared and confident in how to talk about it with their teams.

Key Elements of a Standard Manager Toolkit on Communication

We’ve worked with many companies looking to set the context for change so their leaders or managers can get grounded on what’s happening and understand their role in making the change happen.

The toolkits not only provide the background that managers need to understand the topic but also give them a playbook for what to share with their teams, how and when, and often provide FAQs so leaders know how to answer the most frequently asked employee questions.

Here’s a sample outline for a leader toolkit on a new strategy to achieve a more engaged and productive workforce in the midst of a challenging business environment:

Toolkit Table of Contents

  • Letter from the CEO: Briefly explains the context for the strategy change, touches on the why and “what’s in it for employees” message
  • Our Strategy: Brief summary of the new strategy in the context of the business environment and challenges
  • Our Vision: Brief description of how the strategy ties to the company vision
  • What We’ll Achieve with the Strategy: Paints the big picture of what the outcome is intended to be, how the strategy will make the overall employee culture stronger, more powerful and rewarding
  • Key Actions: Brief summary of what’s being done, often just three or four bullet points on what specifically is about to happen
  • How We’ll Win: Brief explainer on how top leadership (with the managers’ support) plans to make the change happen, with a timeline of what to expect in the coming weeks, months and further into the future
  • Your Role: Brief description of what managers can do to make the strategy happen, including daily actions they can take. This is often followed with talking points that the managers can then relay to their teams on what they, as leaders, hope to see individual employees do differently to support the strategy’s success

3. Repeat important messages

One common communication mistake managers make is the “check-off-the-box” mentality. People see communication as a one-time event. They say things like, “I sent out an e-mail” or “I already communicated that.”

Sound familiar?

Research shows that many of us need to hear a message multiple times before we get it. Communication isn’t something you can check off a to-do list. Managers build trust and credibility through consistent messaging across multiple touchpoints. When employees hear the same message repeated, they’re more likely to take notice, believe it, and most importantly, act on it.

4. Create dialogue and check for understanding

Every time managers communicate, there’s an opportunity to find out if their employees get what they’re saying. The job isn’t done when the message is sent. It’s important for managers to make sure the message is really heard and understood.

Building opportunities for questions and dialogue into a leader’s communication helps measure in real-time how well employees receive their messages, and whether more communication is needed.

Some key questions for leaders to ask include:

  • “What challenges and opportunities do you see with what I’ve just explained?”
  • “What are your key takeaways from the information I just shared?”
  • “What other questions or concerns do you have about this direction?”
Try Out “Ask Me Anything” Sessions

One important way for managers or people leaders to know if they’ve been understood is to open themselves up for “Ask Me Anything” sessions, during which employees are encouraged to ask frank questions about anything that’s going on with the business or other key topics on their minds. Sometimes these sessions can feel intimidating for leaders, but we’ve found them to be a great way for leaders to share their authentic selves and build trust with their teams. We often help leaders prepare for these sessions by putting together a frequently asked questions document and suggested responses, so leaders have a better sense going in what may be on employees’ minds.

5: Create regular opportunities for personal connections

With teams spread out across regions and countries, and so many people working remotely or on a hybrid home/office schedule, managers find it even harder to build critical connections and moments of dialogue. This is one of the biggest pain points we hear from our clients in their work to build better communication skills in management.

To help address this, set time aside to connect personally with employees – ideally with a brief meeting once or twice a month whenever possible. In fact, Gallup finds the best new habit for managers is having one meaningful conversation per week with each team member, anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes in length. (Source)

If the team a manager oversees is too large for this, leaders can set up regular focus group sessions, inviting a different sampling of team members for each one. These sessions can go a long way toward establishing trust and more meaningful work relationships.

Start on the Right Foot with New Employees to Establish Trust

One of the best ways for managers to build a stronger relationship with team members is to get to know what really matters to their employees early on, in the first days and weeks of the employee’s entry into the company.

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, writing with co-researchers in a recent Harvard Business Review article, suggested one fresh way to do this. He said rather than relying simply on exit interviews to get quality feedback on what was going right or wrong, why not hold “entry interviews.” In those meetings, managers can sit down with new hires to learn about their favorite projects, when they felt excited at work and what passions they have outside of work. Managers can then use this information to help ensure their employees are engaged from the start and establish a more personal connection.  

Over time, continue the touchpoints and think of them as “stay interviews.” These help you keep a pulse on how team members are feeling, what they’re excited about, if they’re feeling valued, challenged and engaged, and identify ways to continue to meet their and the team’s needs.

6: Use calls to action

As leaders communicate, it’s important to think about what actions they’re trying to drive. Communications should help move the audience to action. What do leaders want employees to do as a result of the communication?

Leaders should clearly communicate the actions wanted and be specific and give examples. Without a call to action, the leader’s message is just information.

Examples of Effective Calls to Action

  • Four key actions we can all take to be better colleagues:
    • Respond to customer or colleague emails or calls within 24 hours
    • Ask your teammates how you can help
    • Always meet or exceed customer or colleague deadlines (or let them know early when you’re facing a roadblock)
    • Propose creative solutions to challenges. Show positive leadership skills, no matter your role
  • What we need from you to achieve our vision:
    • Maintain our values
    • Do what’s right for our company; maintain our integrity no matter what
    • Leverage and share best practices
    • Put the customer first
    • Know how you can contribute to our growth strategy; take on an ownership mentality

It’s also helpful for managers to share with their teams what they will personally commit to as leaders to make the team successful. This demonstrates that the leader is fully invested in the employee’s success and sees the working relationship as a two-way street.

Examples of Leader Commitments to Employees

  • What you can expect from me:
    • A commitment to our values
    • Regular personal touchpoints with team members to ensure I’m hearing your questions and concerns
    • A prompt response to your questions. If I don’t know an answer or need time to sort things out, I will let you know that, too
    • An open door when you need to discuss a particular concern or need
    • A genuine desire to see each team member grow and thrive in their role
    • A commitment to ensuring each of us does all we can to serve our customers in the best way we can

A Final Note on How to Improve Communication Skills as a Manager

The six skills we’ve outlined are excellent core manager communication skills that will undoubtedly help any leader become a far more effective communicator. Yet there’s one point that’s important to underscore, one that became clear during the pandemic when so many leaders were forced to reexamine their ability to connect with teams in a crisis.

The most important lesson about leadership truly comes down to being human as you lead, what I call “Heart First” leadership. This is simply about understanding that nothing really important gets done without genuine relationships, buy-in, trust and support from your full team.

Managers who commit to getting to know their team members more personally build more solid, genuine relationships, the kind that can make a lasting difference in the culture of any organization.

Which of these skills will you focus on to help you communicate more effectively with your employees?

—David Grossman

Looking to improve your communication skills and take your leadership to the next level? Get insights on the essential skills that have been game-changers for thousands of leaders with this guide, 6 Must-Have Communication Skills for Managers. Click the image below to download today!

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