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21st century management

Industrial Management's quarterly column by Dan Carrison

Does your management style inhibit communication?

The issue of communication sometimes is approached on a purely technical level, as if the personalities of the managers attending the communication workshop were irrelevant to the process of issuing directives and policies that are clearly understood. But the personality of the manager – or, more specifically, his or her management style – is the precursor to clear communication; it creates the environment in which the communion of minds is possible. Managers can be eloquent on paper, using perfect grammar and syntax, while they personally inhibit clear communication.

Let’s examine a few management styles that needlessly obstruct the path to understanding.

The hurried manager. “Hurry” is one of the greatest obstacles to communication. We all have had the experience of asking a brisk receptionist to read back our message, only to be appalled at the misspelled names, wrong phone numbers and inaccurate context repeated to us in staccato fashion. Ironically, that receptionist may not have been busy at the time and simply was emulating the manager.

Managers underestimate the degree to which others will try to mirror their moods. A manager who walks briskly through the office, always intent on some important mission, will inspire others to communicate “on the run,” without pausing to listen carefully to subordinates. This is especially true in emergencies. Employees want to demonstrate they share the manager’s sense of urgency and are apt to march off without a clear understanding of their appointed task. If it occurs to the zealous employee to ask for clarification, one look at the impatient aspect of the manager discourages further questioning.

The strong, silent manager. Whether we admit it, we all have been influenced by Hollywood stereotypes. One of the most enduring (and destructive) stereotypes is that of the strong, silent hero, who is invariably a “man of few words,” preferring decisive action to pointless debate. In these movies, it is the villain who is loquacious (i.e., communicative), while the inscrutable hero remains tightlipped.

Managers who are similarly frugal with words, who speak only when spoken to – and then in the most abbreviated terms – often leave too many things unsaid precisely at a time when ideas are crying out to be expressed. Terse managers who omit their signature on e-mails or forego a simple “thank you” at the end of a voice message perpetuate one of the most overlooked obstacles to communication: the lack of common courtesy. And if the manager has a “Godfather” complex and speaks like Don Vito Corleone, in a voice so low that all in the room must strain to hear him, then silence will be the ensuing sign of respect, perhaps at a time when words should flow.

Often this type of manager will use silence as a rebuke. The hapless subordinate doesn’t know what to make of it, so he, too, is silent. Is it any wonder that the two protagonists may misinterpret each other as they spin all kinds of “explanations” in their own heads?

The authoritarian manager. When the authoritarian manager gives a presentation as if she is laying down the law and then concludes with a terse, “Any questions?” those in the room may hear “Any objections?” instead. It’s all in the asking. If the manager asks the question rhetorically – as if the words “Good, if there are no questions, let’s get to work” already are on her lips – few will have the courage to raise their hands.

Depending on the tone of voice, “Any questions?” can be interpreted by the audience as “Have I made myself clear?” If so, few in the room will want to suggest, with their question, that the manager was anything but crystal clear.

Clearly, management style opens the door to effective communication or closes it peremptorily.

Dan Carrison, a business writer and consultant, has authored or co-authored four management books: Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way, Deadline! How Premier Organizations Win the Race Against Time, Business Under Fire and From the Bureau to the Boardroom. Carrison is a general partner of Semper Fi Consulting and founder of www.ghostwritersinthesky.com. Carrison lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches corporate communication for the University of La Verne. He can be reached at dan.carrison@gmail.com.


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