Time & Attendance
Focus on Employee Communications
By David Maxfield
Apr. 18, 2019
How can a manager become measurably more effective?
To answer this question, scholars, scientists and leaders have studied personality traits; others have tried to understand and categorize management styles. While these studies yield appealing insights, they are difficult to emulate. Evidence is lacking that these approaches to managerial effectiveness have enabled managers to markedly improve their personal influence and results.
In our own efforts to help managers improve effectiveness, we’ve focused our study on crucial moments — those moments where a manager’s communication has a profound and disproportionate effect on results. In moments when the stakes are high, do managers remain calm, collected, candid, curious, direct and willing to listen? Or do their direct reports describe them as the opposite: upset, angry, closed-minded, rejecting, even devious? And how does either style under stress affect results and relationships?
Our latest research confirms, yet again, that the way a manager performs in these crucial moments has a disproportionate effect on their personal influence and their people. The research also shows, however, that a shockingly large majority of managers and leaders buckle under pressure.
We asked more than 1,300 employees to describe their leader’s style under stress and the impact of that behavior. According to respondents, one in three leaders are seen by their direct reports as someone who fails to engage in dialogue when the stakes get high. Specifically:
This is significant because it’s these nonroutine moments that define you as a leader. In difficult, highly charged situations, some managers react emotionally and aggressively while others became silent and withdrawn. These responses damage relationships and undermine the work being done.
One executive we worked with was adamant and deliberate about creating a fun and supportive atmosphere where his team felt safe to try new things. He saw his role as building people. And yet, to his surprise, most of his team labelled him a “jerk.” As we described a situation his team found particularly “jerky,” he said, “You’re probably thinking I’m some sort of hypocrite. But I’m not. Ninety-five percent of the time, I’m the fun, supportive guy I’ve described. It’s only the 5 percent when I lose my temper that I say stupid things. Those statements are not an accurate reflection of who I am.”
And while it was true that his team agreed he was great 95 percent of time, it was also true that this nonroutine behavior was what left a lasting impression. His team felt those few moments when stakes were high and the heat was on revealed the truth about who he really was.
A leader’s unsavory behavior in stressful moments does more than harm his or her personal influence — it also hurts the team. When asked how their leader’s style impacted their results, respondents said that when their leader clams up or blows up under pressure, team members have lower morale; are more likely to miss deadlines, budgets and quality standards; and act in ways that drive customers away. They also described negative impacts on morale and psyche. Specifically, when a leader fails to practice effective dialogue under stress, team members are more likely to consider leaving their job; more likely to shut down and stop participating; less likely to go above and beyond in their responsibilities; and more likely to be frustrated, angry and complain.
Luckily, there are managers who handle themselves under pressure differently from the rest. In high-stakes situations, they remain calm and respectful. They don’t skirt or minimize issues. They are direct, but their behavior invites others to contribute their concerns and ideas. By doing so, they surface the most accurate, complete information; they better understand problems; they formulate with others the best solutions; and they act together with greater unity and conviction. This, in turn, creates better relationships and results.
Another silver lining? A manager’s ability or inability to deal with high-stakes, stressful situations has nothing to do with age or gender. Neither factor correlated with the skills and behaviors of dialogue under pressure. The ability to stay in dialogue when stakes are high is not dependent on genetic or inherent factors. Rather, these are skills anyone can learn and adopt to not only be more personally effective and influential, but to better lead a team to success.
Here are a few tips managers can use to improve their communication style under stress and see better results from the people they lead.
Managers who can effectively hold crucial conversations outperform their peers. As an organization collects a critical mass of these effective managers, it has a profound effect on successful execution of initiatives, financial agility and overall performance.
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