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The communication skills managers need to master

Simon Mitchell

There are five core principles of interpersonal communication that managers need to master if they want to operate effectively in today’s interconnected workplace, says Simon Mitchell

As the business climate remains unpredictable, organisations are being asked to deliver more with less resources.
While evidence shows that employers are making efforts to hang onto their skilled people in preparation for when the climate improves, many companies still have a headcount freeze, resulting in people who leave not being replaced.

For every two to three people managed by their ‘best ever’ leaders, there would be a productivity gain equal to a whole extra person. 
This brings huge challenges for the teams left behind in terms of productivity. But it also becomes an issue for managers as they must continue to motivate and engage remaining employees. There’s no doubting the importance of management in achieving business goals, and a recent report from the Institute of Leadership and Management found that 93% of managers were concerned that low levels of management skills are having an impact on their business goals.

Recent global research by talent management group DDI found that there were huge differences in productivity when comparing good and less effective bosses. The majority of respondents (53%) said they weren’t currently working for the best manager they had ever worked for – and said they’d be 20 to 60 per cent more productive if they were working for their ‘best ever’ boss. A quarter (26 per cent) said they would be 41 to 60 per cent more productive.
In other words, for every two to three people managed by their ‘best ever’ leaders, there would be a productivity gain equal to a whole extra person. The fact is that being a manager is tough. But organisations have strategies and objectives they are trying to reach and the only way to get there is through the actions of the leaders. Leadership needs to match the culture and strategy of the organisation and there are skills that managers can deploy to make their interactions with staff more successful.

Whether you’re part of a global organisation or a local business, the increasingly multicultural and age-diverse make-up of teams mean that many are managing people very different from themselves. Whether we’re interacting face-to-face, over the phone or via text or email, the way we treat others and the way we communicate with them makes an impact – be that positive or negative.

Core behaviours

There is much emphasis on the more complex aspects of leadership such as ‘executive derailers’ and managing poor performance, but after decades of work in the leadership sphere we have identified five core behaviours that make all the difference in effective management. The first principle is to maintain or enhance the self-esteem of the people you are interacting with. Outcomes of high levels of self-esteem include high levels of career and job satisfaction; improved motivation and engagement; high-quality work; better personal and professional relationships; and more innovation at work. All outcomes which businesses want to encourage. Listening and responding with empathy is the second principle. Leaders who demonstrate empathy with their employees are perceived to be better coaches, while employees who believe their leaders are empathetic tend to be more engaged in their work and less fatigued, depressed and anxious.

Research by the Institute for Employment Studies showed that the main reason employees found managers disengaging was a lack of empathy/interest in people. Leaders are seen as more effective when they create a participative and inclusive work environment.

This brings us to the third principle: asking for help and encouraging involvement. For people to be engaged, they need to feel as though their opinions and thoughts matter. At work this translates into leaders and team members reaching out to one another for support. 

The fourth principle is to share thoughts, feelings and rationale in order to build trust. In the workplace, sharing the reasons behind decision-making improves communication between both direct reports and colleagues, and builds a more trusting environment.

Trust in leadership is a critical requirement for employees, and this affects overall organisational and work group effectiveness, employee satisfaction with leadership, and innovation. The final principle is to provide support without removing responsibility in order to build ownership. The fact that today’s workplace is so interconnected means that it is next to impossible to do a job in isolation. Providing support is a critical role of the manager or team member. When seeking help it is important for the support to come without removing ownership of the task as this is how we learn and develop on a role.

The ability to provide support without removing responsibility is the driving force behind the sense of empowerment, and managers are seen as more effective when they perform supportive behaviours without taking over. While business and technical knowledge are important in managers, the reasons most leaders fail are shortcomings in their interpersonal and communication skills.

The good news is that these skills can be learnt, and any improvements on the leaders’ part translates to a more productive and engaged workforce.

Simon Mitchell is European marketing director & UK general manager of the talent management group DDI.


  • Alexis Thompson

    I think communication is essential - without open and honest communication, staff can feel insecure and undervalued. A leader or manager that communicates the truth will gain respect and trust, which is fundamental if you want your team to keep happy and productive.

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