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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Tips on Talking to Your Employees


Being the boss is a double-edged sword. Immense pressure can come from knowing that you are responsible for harnessing your staff’s talents to produce results that will make your higher-ups happy. Conversely, you are armed with the knowledge that those below you want very much to make you happy. Your employees’ desire to meet your expectations is a powerful motivator and has the potential to keep your office running efficiently.

Before you can reap the rewards of a highly motivated group of employees, however, you have to communicate clearly what will make you happy. Employees have no hope of meeting your expectations if you don’t lay them out. And failing to do so will not only keep your team from performing, but likely will cause deep anxiety and frustration among employees.

While effectively communicating expectations is a fundamental skill for managers, many supervisors have not yet mastered it. In his book Communicating for Managerial Effectiveness: Problems, Strategies, Solutions, Phillip G. Clampitt reports that as many as 40 percent of employees are not satisfied with the communications from their supervisor.

He outlines managers’ tendencies to focus on how they deliver information. This “arrow approach” leads supervisors to speak clearly and concisely, believing if their words are on the mark, then employees will remain on task. The shortfall to this approach, according to Clampitt, is it views the employees as completely passive. Feedback is not expected nor considered necessary for the communication to succeed.

The book identifies another common tendency, the “circuit approach,” under which managers stress communication as a two-way street, expecting and relying on a back-and-forth with employees. This approach also commonly breaks down as circuit approach managers tend to focus exclusively on relationships to the detriment of performance goals. Clampitt recommends managers view communication as a dance, governed by complex patterns and unwritten rules, rather than as a task that can be checked off with a fixed set of steps.

The Office of Personnel Management views communication as a key performance management competency. OPM has published several articles advising federal managers on planning and communicating expectations. Like Clampitt, the agency acknowledges that a multipronged communications strategy is crucial. Managers must take the time and make the effort to establish effective working relationships with every employee. Without these relationships, managers will fail to customize their communication efforts, which is crucial to ensuring that employees have a solid understanding of managers’ expectations.

While relationships are important, managers also must prioritize the continuous flow of information and feedback. OPM cites a Gallup survey that shows the most successful managers develop a routine that includes frequent, in-depth discussions about performance with employees. These simple and informal conversations, occurring as often as once a quarter, should center on how both the manager and the employee view the employee’s performance in relation to meeting organizational expectations.

OPM emphasizes that these feedback sessions are conversations, rather than reviews or evaluations. Asking open-ended questions engages employees in assessing their own performance and also ensures they have a solid understanding of what is expected of them and know the best avenues to achieve those goals.

Learning to be an effective communicator takes trial and error, and managers should be willing to acknowledge to themselves and the team that it is an ongoing process. Supervisors should take responsibility for being understood, despite the temptation to blame employees for failing to listen or speak up when they didn’t fully comprehend the expectation. Managers can create an environment of trust by working diligently and quickly to clear up misunderstandings and learning from the communications errors that might have caused them.

Managers understand that a failed project reflects poorly on them, regardless of their level of direct involvement. Similarly, the level and effectiveness of communication within the organization is one measure of their job performance, requiring a level of dedication on par with other top priorities.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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