I once worked for a manager who inspired me to believe I could achieve anything. Then there was the manager who yelled at his staff and threw smartphones at them. I remember the CEO with the charisma of a movie star and the CFO with the personality of a yoghurt. I’ve seen them driven like Gandhi and lost like Bambi. I’ve known managers who light up rooms and others who light up cigarettes. In my time, I’ve worked for, followed, admired and observed managers of all shapes and sizes. Some were natural communicators, many were not. Some drove me to perfection, others drive me to tears. We all know what that’s like.
Comms people often call out line managers as their biggest challenge. Why is this? Why are so many managers so frustratingly poor at engaging with the people they are paid to lead? Most managers tend to think they are good communicators. They’ll insist they talk regularly with their staff and that they take comms seriously, but then they’ll throw up excuses about time and conflicting business priorities. Others think their comms responsibilities extend only to reading out a team briefing, announcing decisions or conducting the occasional team meeting.
I’ll tell you why so many managers don’t communicate. They’re scared. It’s fear, not workload, that stops them communicating.
Fear of peer judgement. Managers are competitive and they don’t like to look weak. They have a mental picture in their head that managers should look strong, confident and ‘in charge’. They often become leaders of people by virtue of technical ability or time-served, and they justify their lofty appointments by talking about strategic business issues, sprinkling their language with corporate jargon and generally ‘acting senior’. That’s what managers do isn’t it – have meetings, make decisions and display tangible evidence of their authority? What would the other managers say if they put people and engagement above strategy and execution on their list of priorities?
Fear of looking soft. The macho culture of many organisations mean that managers tend to consider qualities like humility, creativity and active listening as ‘too soft’. For them, emotional intelligence is just a fancy HR buzzword and not something hard-nosed business decision makers should be taking seriously. It takes a lot of courage to be an authentic leader – to admit to weakness, to own up to mistakes, to show emotion and ask others to do likewise. Good communicators listen more than they talk. They facilitate more than dictate. They ask people about their lives, how they feel and what brings out the best in them. They ask questions like “what can I do better” and “how can I help”. For many managers, that’s too much to ask.
Fear of not knowing answers. Managers, especially senior leaders, often like to avoid confrontation with ‘real people’ because they are frightened of what they might be asked. They fear not having credible answers. They worry about looking vulnerable. That’s why they dread Q&As and open forums. They haven’t yet worked out that leadership isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about knowing how to deal with the question and knowing what questions to ask in return. It’s the same reason that leaders fear creativity. They think it’s their job to come up with all the ideas.
Fear of getting it wrong. We ask our managers to understand, translate, convey and ‘own’ corporate messages. We expect them to role model values and inspire high performance. But what if they don’t ‘get it’ themselves? What if they don’t understand any or some of the message they are being asked to pass on with due gusto? What if they don’t know what the acronyms mean? You can only get so far with smoke and mirrors. Many leaders avoid putting themselves in harm’s way by not communicating and not actively engaging with their people because they fear getting found out.
Ok, I know I’m having a bit of a downer of managers here. I don’t mean to generalise, and I know there are some exceptional leaders and line managers in every organisation, but I do think that when managers fail to discharge their comms responsibilities it’s often a psychological rather than a practical barrier.