The hardest part about talking to employees is talking to them at all.
Being a manager inevitably entails an uncomfortable talk with employees, be it a bad performance review, a delicate personal situation, or unpleasant news from higher-ups.
But an astounding number of managers report that the hardest part about talking to employees is talking to them at all.
In 2016, a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults (paywall) asked managers what they found most difficult about communicating with employees. Some 37% of managers said they found it hard to give negative feedback to workers about their performance, 20% said they struggled to share their own vulnerability, and another 20% disliked being the messenger for company policies.
But a full 69% of respondents said that they found “communicating in general” to be the hardest part about communicating with employees.
That’s alarming, because one of the primary things employees say they need to feel engaged and productive at work is regular, meaningful communication with their managers. The percentage of U.S. managers who say they don’t like talking with employees mirrors the 67% of workers who say they’re not engaged at work. That figure comes from the most recent Gallup survey of the U.S. workplace, the company’s annual in-depth report on more than 31 million workers across US industries.
Only 13% of respondents in the Gallup survey said that their company’s leadership communicates effectively with the rest of the organization. Those who did report having conversations with their manager in the previous six months about their goals and successes were 2.8 times more likely to be engaged at work.
“Organizations are realizing that more frequent, ongoing conversations may be the missing link in performance management, but there is a huge caveat: Managers have to understand how to have effective performance conversations with employees,” the report read. “Unfortunately, Gallup research suggests that many managers struggle in this area.”
Painful as the interactions may be for managers, Gallup’s research found that employees do, in fact, want to have conversations with the people they report to at work. The organization suggests managers check in with employees individually at least once a week. This does not mean constant progress updates or endless, Michael Scott-stylebreakroom banter. Workers want relevant feedback on their performance, clear discussion of goals, the and the freedom to approach their manager with questions.
“Rather than endless lunches or dinners or boondoggles, one of the best ways to build a good relationship with your employees is to make sure they feel heard,” wrote HR guru Kim Scott in Harvard Business Review. Scott suggests regular one-on-one check-ins where the employee sets the agenda, and that managers give regular feedback—both positive and critical.
“You’ll build better relationships by sharing your feedback than by having idle conversation,” she wrote.
Scott also referred to the work of Russ Laraway, her co-founder at the consultancy Radical Candor, who suggests a three-part approach to career discussions with employees: listen to the employee talk about what motivates them, ask them what they want for their future, and together develop a career development plan that takes both into account.
For managers who want to take the first steps toward better conversations with employees—or at least, ones that don’t feel deeply uncomfortable—Gallup suggests understanding each employee’s communication preferences and style. (To really dive into this subject, having team members write their own user manuals can be an illuminating exercise.)
Finding a rhythm of regular, productive communication that doesn’t veer into micromanagement is a challenge, the Gallup report acknowledged. But if communicating with employees doesn’t come naturally, the best thing a manager can do is just start doing it.
“Although this is a difficult balance to master, none of this means that managers should stop talking to employees until they understand the ins and outs of performance conversations,” the Gallup report says. “Managers can be confident that employees do want to interact with them and talk to them about work and life.”