People Problems Afoot? Get the Words Out! | Supervisors As Challenged Communicators

“I’m speechless!” Ever said that? It usually pops out when we’re given unexpected praise or are caught unaware.

Being “speechless” is a problem when we’re expected to say exactly the right thing when something important is on the line.

Keep your foot in your shoe. 

We rightly expect our bosses to be good communicators. We need them to solve problems and motivate us by saying the right things at the right time.

Being a good communicator isn’t just about stringing words together. It means:

  • Correctly sizing up a situation
  • Understanding employee motivation
  • Effectively assessing behavior
  • Internalizing different perspectives 

All of this needs to be done before we utter a word.

Words are powerful things.  

I make no excuses for bosses who are poor communicators, but I do empathize with them. Most bosses supervise others the way they were supervised.  They often get promoted for their technical competence not their “people skills.”

There are other contributing factors too:

  • Lack of training on how to use words effectively*
  • Inability to articulate performance behavior
  • Fear of employee backlash or criticism
  • Unwillingness to risk conflict
  • Arrogance and/or disregard for employees 

*(Communication training is a workplace staple, but it’s usually more about interpersonal dynamics and listening than about language.)

Here’s what this poor communication often looks like:

  • Your supervisor gives you no feedback on your performance during the year, then rates you “needs improvement.”
  • Your boss says nothing about your absences until you get a termination warning notice.
  • You report that you routinely hear inappropriate remarks within your team and your boss says or does nothing.
  • A work group employee is visibly despondent and the boss ignores the situation. 

It’s not that supervisors don’t want to address these situations. It’s that they don’t know what to say or how to say it. Their fear of saying the wrong thing outweighs the risk of having problems escalate.

The right words can turn straw into gold.

When you’re a supervisor, the company expects you to handle the people issues. That means you need lots of words in your tool kit. 

Supervisors need to know what to say and how to say it, using words that don’t trigger reactions they don’t want while getting the results they do.

Successful communication is also about how you start the conversation, tone of voice, body language, and your intentions.

Try these on for size: 

Situation: I had an employee who always over-explained things. It was starting to alienate colleagues and detract from her developing brand as a great project manager. She was a very sensitive person but unaware of this situation.

Communication: Beth, we’ve worked together for a long time. You know how much I count on you to get things done the right way. I’ve been paying special attention to your presentations over the past month and noticed that you give more information than your listeners want. I often see them tune out. Have you ever noticed that?[Nod]. I’d like to help you address that. Are you game? [Yes.] 

Situation: The company assigned a fellow to my workgroup to see if he could be “saved.” I asked to meet with him one morning and he came bopping into my office, quite care free. He said, “You wanted to see me, Boss.”  

Communication: Harry, I’d rather you not address me as “Boss.” [“Well, you don’t have to be thin- skinned about it.] After all, Harry, I don’t address you as Employee.” [He asks, “Then what should I call you?] Just call me Dawn. [Okay.] 

Start with you heart in the right place. 

Honesty and kindness can give you a pass when your words aren’t the best. Words that are clear, factual, and non-judgmental will serve you well. To be business fit is to stay current, fully equipped with the words you need to communicate effectively every day! Think Webster!

Can you share a time when words got you into or out of trouble? How would you assess their power at the time? This’ll fire up our discussion.