What Your Employees Aren't Telling You

Communication is harder than it looks


Strategic leadership isn’t easy. Read a thousand articles and you are likely to be presented with a thousand different ‘secrets’ for success, run a thousand surveys and you will likely get a thousand different responses. According to a 2015 PwC study, strategic leaders exhibit a number of common personality traits, most of which - statistically - you probably don’t have. These include the ability to challenge the prevailing view without provoking outrage or cynicism, being able to act on the big and small pictures at the same time, have the self-assurance to change course if a chosen path turns out to be wrong, and lead with inquiry as well as advocacy, among a number of others.

The tiny percentage of those found to hold these qualities (10% of the female respondents were categorized this way and just 7% of the men) shows just how rare such people are. However, they mean little if you are unable to lead a team of people who can put your strategy into action. Employees are the front line of the business. They translate your plan into results and hold the knowledge to overcoming the major obstacles that stand in the way. The top leaders push power downward, disseminating it throughout the organization, and empower employees at all levels to make decisions that achieve the end goal.

Dealing with employees is no piece of cake, though. Communication is often cited as one of, if not the most important leadership quality, with miscommunication estimated to cost an organization 25-40% of its annual budget. Yet many organizations are still failing. In a CNN survey, 32% of respondents said the written and verbal communication in their company was poor. For a variety of reasons, staff are often unwilling to tell decision makers certain truths and correct certain misconceptions that could help them work better if known. Communication is a two way street, but at the moment one side of the road is covered in tarpaulin. Speaking at the recent Women In Strategy Summit, Katie Berry, Social Media Manager at US Bank, listed a few of the most important things your employees aren’t telling you along with tips for unlocking their insight, which we’ve expanded on.

‘I’m not going to walk through your open door just because you say it’s ok’

This was Katie’s first tip. Just saying ‘knock on my door, it’s always open’ is not enough. Nobody is taking you up on that. Successful people are intimidating, and while smiling and saying ‘come in, talk to me’ is nice, leopards also smile and say their door is always open. A leopard will then rip you in two and go back to sleep. Most sensible people will not trust a big beaming smile if you’ve done nothing else to give them the impression that you’re a human being. Leaders need to reach out individually, and send a real signal that it’s ok to come to them whenever there’s anything they need to discuss.

‘This is wrong and I can’t cope’

Your average employee is not going to come to you voluntarily if something is not going right because they don’t want to look like they can’t cope. This is a perfectly natural impulse when someone is looking to further their career, but the impact can be extremely damaging. If there are problems with, say, a new project and things are going badly, leaders need to know so they can help to solve the issues and rework processes, If not, there is a good chance that the project will crash and burn. Remember to ask employees for feedback and go to them. When people do come to you, never get defensive if they are questioning your decisions, no matter how frustrated you might be. You are scary and people want to keep their jobs, so it takes courage. If not, you won’t be able to understand where problems are occurring and fix them.

‘I’m not taking risks unless I know my job is secure’

Innovation needs employees that are willing to take risks, and they’re not going to pipe up if you make them feel like an idiot when they raise an idea or tell them that they’ll get fired if the idea fails. You need to create a safe space to share ideas so employees feel they can experiment and innovate or you could be missing out on a million dollar scheme. Of course, you could also be missing out on having to listen to some bad ideas, but the harm done by a few minutes of wasted time listening to Dave from accounting’s new idea to have the toaster double as a shredder will be far outweighed by the nuggets you pick up.

‘You’re in my way’

In Navalent’s ten-year longitudinal study on executive leadership, 67% of the 2,700 leaders asked said they struggled to let go of work from previous roles. As a leader rises in an organization, they will often take the work that made them feel successful along with them. This is intensely irritating for employees, who will feel that either they are not good enough and having to have help they didn’t think they needed foisted upon them, or, alternatively, they will be forced to work lower than their role and their job satisfaction will plummet. The solution to this is easy - get out of the way.

‘If there are no clear goals, I’m just going to go for the low-hanging fruit’

People are always going to go for low-hanging fruit when there are no clearly defined goals because it’s an easy win. It makes them feel good and makes them look good. If people are given clearly defined know goals they won’t know what they need to be focusing on. Share your vision so they can get on board with it and work towards things that are helping the big picture, not waste time picking off easy to hit targets. When big decisions are made with no transparency and communication just drips down through silos, there will be a general feeling of time wasted. There will also be a distinct lack of trust and employees will be inefficient, unhappy, and probably looking elsewhere for employment.

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