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Communication – the golden thread of management effectiveness

The more one engages with participants on Management Development Programmes, at various levels and in many organisations in the southern African region, the more convinced one is of the need for managers to communicate more effectively in every way.

When I ask participants to comment on communication effectiveness in their organisations, I hear comments such as: “I was never told”, “I was never asked”, “I never receive feedback”, “I didn’t receive the email”, “Why is my manager not attending this course on communication?”, “There is no transparency in communication from the top”, “The goalposts keep on moving” and “Nothing ever changes, so why bother saying anything”.  The recently released USB-ED Management Index 2013/2014 found that there are a number of management challenges facing South African managers, one of which is the issue of communication.  Effective communication appears to be the Achilles heel of many organisations, as only a little over half of all the managers surveyed indicated that top leadership in their organisations spend sufficient time communicating with staff and they are also of the opinion that their organisations are not providing sufficient support for virtual team working.

The quality of communication can make or break the effectiveness of managers, and hence the performance of team members. Communication is central to most functions and tasks that managers perform on a day-to-day basis.  Whether planning,  delegating, coaching, giving feedback, counselling for performance, running meetings, sending emails, making phone calls, video conferencing, giving instructions, writing memos, problem solving, managing change, and the like, effective communication is required.

Many organisational problems are caused by communication breakdowns such as misunderstandings, lack of stakeholder consultation and buy-in, poor relationships and conflict among employees, poor listening skills, lack of information, poor planning and preparation when speaking or writing, lack of feedback, no trust, lack of honesty, inability to have difficult conversations, lack of emotional intelligence, hiding behind emails, lack of skill to communicate, inappropriate use of technology, among other causes.

Another challenge in today’s workplace is that face-to-face communication doesn’t happen as often as many people would like. Today’s communication relies on conference calls and emails that make it challenging to get to know clients and employees. This is a common lament among people dissatisfied with the technology that has become the norm in their daily lives.  But, with so many workers worldwide working in virtual teams, many relationships in business do rely on technology.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as they are using the right technologies in the right ways.  The answer is not to abandon technology for a more human way of working, but to evolve technology to make the new way of working more human.  This is captured well in the following quotation in Cluetrain Manifesto by Locke et al: “… there are millions and millions of threads in the conversation, but at the beginning and end of each is a human being …”

The benefits of effective communication are many, so it is well worth the effort.  Problem solving and decision making will improve if team members and other stakeholders are involved, in that there will be more ideas and solutions to consider.  Relationships with team members and customers will improve and result in greater profits.  Fewer mistakes would lead to cost savings.  There would also be a reduction in staff turnover as well as more successful change initiatives, among others.

Managers need to go back to the basics in order to communicate more effectively.  They need to:
  • listen attentively
  • give feedback regularly (both positive and constructive)
  • think before speaking and writing
  • consider the appropriate medium for the communication purpose
  • prepare for communication events like meetings and performance reviews
  • put themselves in others’ shoes when communicating
  • avoid overusing email as a medium just because it is quick and seems safe
  • ask questions rather than tell
  • involve others in problem solving and decision making
  • keep employees informed
  • ask for feedback on themselves as managers, so that they can make improvements where necessary
  • have the courage to have those difficult conversations

In Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott says: “Our work, our relationships and our lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time … the conversation is the relationship.  If the conversation stops, all of the possibilities for the relationship become smaller and eventually fail.”

Jenny Douglas is a facilitator at USB-ED. Her areas of expertise include Communication, Leadership and Management, Emotional Intelligence and Team Leadership.

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