Printer Friendly

Getting managers off their butts and into the communication game.

Industry today is missing out on a sizeable share of its human resource potential because it doesn't put a high priority on effective, two-way communication with its employees as the foundation for improved management-employee relations and overall job performance.

The sad fact is that many senior management people simply and honestly don't believe that good, solid communication can contribute to the bottom line. Or they don't have the skills or ability to communicate well, so they choose to ignore it. Or, they're not willing to invest the time and money necessary to bring about fundamental improvements in attitudes, actions and skills to make good communication an integral part of the management process.

Certainly, this is not to say that top management is the villain - at least not all alone.

Communication professionals share major blame for not doing a better job of selling modem communication concepts and programs to management -- not just at the CEO level, but to managers throughout the organization.

And let's not exclude managers themselves - at all levels - who have failed to capitalize on the value of good communication in advancing both the goals of their organizations and their own careers.

Too many managers have allowed archaic, autocratic principles of non-communication or one-way directives to dominate their actions. They haven't been aggressive enough in demonstrating modem concepts of communication through their own behavior or in demanding that their own managers start gearing up in this key area for the 21st century.

Composite results of recent research from the consulting firm of Towers Perrin indicate that nearly 40 percent of middle- and lower-level managers are unhappy with how top management communicates company activity and plans. Study results also show that more than 50 percent are dissatisfied with how well higher management listens to their ideas and more than 60 percent are not happy with how higher management acts on their suggestions.

Based on 20 years of experience in this field, I am convinced that a strong, ongoing management communication network is essential for development of an effective communication system that operates successfully, makes a maximum contribution to bottom-line results and can survive in good times and bad.

I believe that managers - working as close allies of communicators - can effect the major improvements in management-employee relations needed to make the most of human resources in the years ahead.

Managers: Wake up to the power of communication ! But the time is past when managers could ignore the value of solid, two-way communication or simply be bystanders or cheerleaders for the internal communication process. Rather, they must become active participants, providing leadership by example, support and personal participation in the process at every level of the organization. Lower-level managers also must apply pressure on top managers for fundamental improvements in the process itself.

Managers, after all, are key stimulators and conduits not only for two-way transmission of business information but also for a potentially endless stream of ideas from employees - ideas to increase quality and productivity, to reduce waste, to improve products or services and to save or make money.

And communication is the highway on which good ideas are transmitted, first to gather team strength and then to circulate them widely so they achieve the broadest application. Without good ongoing communication, however, many ideas stay under the proverbial bushel basket and never see the light of day.

Are managers doing a good job in serving this critical information-sharing role? Many experts don't think so.

Bob Stramy, one of General Motors' most successful plant managers, believes that industry must "dramatically transform the traditional structure of its manufacturing operations to take full advantage of the genius of its employees, as well as advances in technology." Now executive vice president of Daewoo Motor Company, a GM joint venture in South Korea, Stramy believes, "Supervisory responsibilities should be significantly reordered to provide more time and emphasis for communication and other high-priority activities in addition to traditional managerial tasks."

General Electric CEO Jack Welch also sees a changing role for managers. In a Fortune cover story, he said, "We've got to take out the boss element." He believes 21st-century managers will move away from traditional monitoring duties - like planning, implementing and evaluating - and give greater emphasis to a leadership style that encourages and supports employees in thinking creatively for themselves and their organizations. "We're going to win on our ideas"' Welch says, "not by whips and chains."

Many firms ignore the tremendous potential of the entire management organization as a two-way communication network which can favorably influence not only employee attitudes but also bottom-line results.

It's obvious that the 21st century alarm has already gone off for the managers of American industry.

Unfortunately, many managers including top executives won't admit that the bell tolls for them. Although they may profess their belief in enlightened and participative leadership, the vestiges of bygone autocratic principles still dictate actions of many managers and it's seriously throttling the potential of industrial might.

And it is happening at a critical point in history.

Shrinking globe heightens competition

New global developments challenge the U.S. to provide stronger leadership in establishing new economic and social systems around the world to advance human welfare and peace. At the same time, America must find ways of recharging its own economic batteries to compete more successfully and avoid bankrupting its own reserves.

We must recognize that American business may have panned out a large share of the golden gains which can be expected through improved technology, facilities and products. I'm not saying we've gone as far as we can with technology. But future returns from these areas are going to be a lot tougher and more expensive.

Now, the mother lode of potential is human resources - the untapped vitality, ingenuity and commitment of our people. Management has talked about this for years, but in many companies today, it is still an unfulfilled dream.

We also must recognize that the process of great change in industrial America, which accelerated during the 80s, has not yet run its course. Many massive changes are still evolving; some are not yet fully accepted by many organizations. Other companies have hardly left the starting gate in terms of major modernizations needed to prepare for the tough global competition ahead.

Brad Whitworth, ABC, public affairs manager, intercontinental operations for Hewlett-Packard, says that "the massive changes of the 80s - including leveraged buyouts, mergers, acquisitions and financial shenanigans - drove a wedge between management and employees, even in some of the best companies. These actions helped create a new definition of 'a loyal employee as someone who's ready to go, but willing to stay."'

Obviously, these are broken fences that could impede progress if not given top priority by business leaders.

The character of worldwide business in the 90s also will be significantly affected by the revolutionary upheavals going on in areas such as Europe, South America, the Pacific Rim, China and, of course, the Soviet Union, with all of its spinoff satellites. The unprecedented demands in these areas for consumer products, industrial development and higher standards of living will represent a severe test of the capabilities of U.S. industry to provide and to compete.

Failure of the U.S. to make maximum use of human resources in the '80s, in my opinion, was a major reason why Japanese and other world competitors achieved substantial competitive gains in that decade - and that advantage continues.

Foreign car sales in the U.S. during 1990 totaled nearly 3.5 million - or 37 percent of total sales. This percentage is double what it was 20 years ago and up 40 percent over 1980. The Japanese alone - including cars built in "transplants" in this country - took nearly 30 percent of U.S. car sales. And Japan can be expected to compete for similar penetrations in other parts of the world - including previously communist nations.

To meet this challenge, America must build a stronger partnership with all employees if it hopes to achieve truly competitive levels of productivity and quality. Because only motivated employees can accelerate the dynamic process of continuous improvement and that's where much of our future success must come from.

Slothing on the job costs plenty

But the ugly truth is that employee disloyalty and lack of commitment to organizational goals may be costing American businesses more than $50 billion a year. This is probably a conservative figure when you include the cost of absenteeism, labor grievances, production interruptions, poor quality, repair and warranty expenses for fixing poor quality and - highly important - owner disloyalty, loss of repeat customer sales and credibility. Perhaps most costly of all is inaction by employees who withhold their best efforts and ideas; who cruise along with just passable performance. It's what I call "slothing on the job."

Certainly, the large majority of business employees are committed and make contributions above expectations. Employee suggestion plans, which enjoy peak participation in Japanese companies, also achieve important savings in U.S. operations - reaching in larger corporations as high as $700-800 million a year. And that's probably just a drop in the bucket compared to the full potential available if all employees are really participating.

During the 80s, the importance of two-way employee communication as a management resource advanced significantly. To a lesser degree, so did the role of managers in the communication process.

But many firms did a poor job in communicating with employees - and managers, too - on the facts about the massive changes which took place in the 80s, why they were necessary and the probable impact on employee jobs and security. As a result, confidence, loyalty, commitment and trust among both employees and managers suffered substantial damage. It will take years to repair at many companies even some that are not directly affected.

If communication with both employees and their managers is so important, why doesn't every firm have an effective, respected two-way communication system as a normal part of doing business?

Roadblocks to successful communication

Obviously, there are a number of reasons, but let me cite what I believe are the two most serious obstacles to effective communication. Both are created by archaic management thinking and practices, particularly at senior levels.

The first obstacle is the lack of management understanding and support for the communication effort. And that includes adequate staff and budgets. It results from the inability of many top executives - starting with the CEO and his staff - to understand how good communication, practiced regularly, consistently and honestly over time, can affect bottom-line results and employee relations.

The question is whether the CEO doesn't understand what the communicators are selling or whether we as communicators don't properly understand our managers' agendas. It also means that communicators haven't done a good job of persuading our CEOs - who are intensely looking for ways to improve the business - that investments in internal communication will bring a proper return.

Brad Whitworth feels that "maybe communicators try too hard to prove cause and effect - when all we need to prove is a correlation between communication activities and results."

I The second major obstacle stems from the traditional autocratic rules of information-sharing - to tell employees only if they have "a need to know." In its barest form, it's not only a lack of trust by top management in employees generally, but also basic mistrust in the rest of their management group, particularly first-and second-level supervisors.

Many high-level executives still view information as power - almost like an elitist perk - not to be shared with anybody lower in the organization. The most successful companies and managers, of course, recognize that information gains its greatest power when it is shared with those who can put it to productive use - and the wider its distribution the better.

The day of the company "house organ," that purveyor of one-way-only company propaganda, is gone although not completely. Even a regular system of print and video cannot fill the complete needs for information-sharing by managers in modem, enlightened, committed-to-true-leadership organizations.

The successful communication process must be repetitive, consistent and multimedia in execution, with its roots in face-to-face communication between managers and the people they supervise. Here is where company information has the greatest relevance and the first-level supervisor is both the preferred and most-believed source. This is where the job of the company is really done and where the company can be best represented - truly the communication lifeline of any organization.

Yet, how much time is allowed supervisors to communicate face-to-face with their people? What is its priority rating compared to quantity, quality, labor grievances and a host of clerical and administrative tasks?

The trend toward flatter organizational strucrtures poses additional challenges for managers because of increased spans of control and more responsibilities. In this environment, communication becomes an even more critical tool for survival.

The truth is that managers have everything to gain from becoming better communicators. It can help them build employee understanding, teamwork and performance; stimulate a receptive climate for new ideas; and advance their own careers.

How to be a successful boss

Success in making all managers effective communicators requires at least the following five actions by senior management:

1. Strong visible participation and support by top management; a written policy commitment repeated at frequent intervals. Regular visits to central office and field locations for talks with managers, employees and union leaders - leadership in communication by example. Managers have to "walk the talk."

2. Regular two-way information flow throughout the organization - from both corporate and local levels - to inform managers and to provide them with information to share with employees. Face-to-face communication is ideal, supplemented by regular publications, electronic and voice mail, and videos - particularly for managers to use in meetings with employees.

Satellite TV has fantastic potential for regular interactive exchange between central office and field managers. TV will not make obsolete the value of the traditional face-to-face conferences for top-layer executives. But it provides a process for including an increased number of managers several times a year in additional information-sharing by television.

3. Communication training for all managers. Designed not only to sharpen personal skills, but also to emphasize how communication can help achieve organizational goals. Focus on tailor-made programs about real-life situations; make training a practical, problem-solving tool for the manager.

Bob Stramy says "many managers lack the basic skills and confidence required for effective communication, a need which cries for more experience-based training for managers."

CEO Mike Walsh of Union Pacific Railroad, Omaha, Neb., says his company is giving increased attention to communication training for middle-and lower-level managers and their pay will be based partly on how well they communicate with their employees.

4. Proper emphasis on good communication in the rewards and promotion systems for managers. Managers must see the payoff in terms of increased performance by themselves and their employees, in advancing their own careers and in their own pocketbooks.

5. Modernized job priorities for all managers. To insure adequate time for communication as a means of increasing their leadership abilities. Without good communication skills, managers simply can't perform at their best in carrying out their other responsibilities.

I contend that the best communicators are those who think and act like managers and who can persuade their managers to think and act like communicators.

It would be naive to say that money in terms of people and budgets - is not a major obstacle. This is particularly true in tough economic times, which may be a way of life for most U.S. businesses from now on.

But the real dilemma originates in management's attitude: how they view the communication function in contributing to hard-line organizational goals. That requirement, not only to be an effective communicator but also a versatile, creative and persistent salesperson, puts the ball squarely in the communicator's court.

Can U.S. businesses afford such improvements to make their management people more effective communicators and therefore better leaders?

They can't afford not to! Indeed, it may be one of the most profitable investments they could make in their future.

Alvie Smith, an IABC Fellow and former director of corporate, communications for General Motors, is now an employee communication consultant and speaker living in Birmingham, Mich.


The increasing importance of managerial communication is a major theme which emerged from a recent survey titled "The Delta Organization" of 33 leading U.S. corporations conducted gy the William M. Mercer consulting firm.

The survey report, in forecasting requirements for "communicating with the 21st century work force," said in part:

"Managers at all levels will need to be increasingly adept at motivating team building and facilitating. These communication-related 'people skills' may become as much a predictor of managerial success as technical skills.

Managers and supervisors should be expected to motivate and empower their employees, facilitate teamwork and accept responsibility for good communication practices. CEOs must be visible and articulate, proclaiming their company's values and offering employees a vision of their company's future.

Greater commitments of time and money will be needed to raise the communication skills of managers/ supervisors to the level required for future success."


Here is what CEOs said they thought employees wanted when polled recently by IABC and The Goldman Group, Inc., an executive search firm in New York City:

In rank order:


--Job security

--Personal Skill development



--Company success

--Knowing what's expected of them

--Understanding company and its goals

--Good "people" management


--Co-worker relations

--Physical working conditions

--Good technical management

Roger D'Aprix, ABC, William M. Mercer, Inc.

There is no question that broad management support and participation is essential for maximum effectiveness of an employee communication system. The dilemma is that managers -- at least partly because of increasingly effective communicators -- have become passive in the whole process. We produce newsletters, videotapes, TV shows and other formalized productions and managers say: 'Well, the job's all done. You don't need me!'

"Communicators need to spend more time persuading managers they do have an important role --particularly in face-to-face information-sharing and support of the whole communication effort. And I think the most critical messages managers can help convey are the vision and values of their organization and its leaders. These are basic elements which keep everybody focused on what the company stands for and how employees can make the vision a reality.

"Not all managers can fill this role. It's in the manager's gut where it happens. Managers who still see themselves as bosses--and don't have the 'fire in the belly' leadership instinct--will not assume this role. But it's up to us as communicators to reach the good guys and assist them in using communication skills and techniques to be the best that they can be."


Composite results from recent research by the consulting firm of Towers Perrin at a number of companies confirms that the lower people are in the management organization, the less satisfied they are about communication with top executives - both upward and downward. Broadly speaking, results showed that about 40 percent of middle and lower-level managers are unhappy with how top management communicates the company's business activities and plans.

When asked if they had a clear understanding of the company's business plans, satisfaction dropped from 70 percent among top managers to 58 percent for middle managers and 52 percent among lower-level supervisors. When asked if they were kept well informed about the organization's activities and plans 71 percent of top managers said they were, compared to 62 percent for middle managers and 58 for other supervisors.

On upward communication, the Towers Perrin studies show that nearly three-fourths of higher executives say that top management listens to their ideas and suggestions, but this drops to 48 percent for middle managers and 40 percent for other supervisors. When asked if management acts on their ideas and suggestions, affirmative responses dropped to 58 percent for top managers, 43 percent for middle managers and only 35 percent for lower-level managers. (Source: Monny Sklov, Towers Perrin, San Francisco, Calif.)
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Section 2: Dealing with Today; Looking Back from the Future; managers as as business communicators; includes related articles
Author:Smith, Alvie L.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:The communication gap.
Next Article:Latest 'excellence' study results.

Related Articles
Internal communication restructures for the '90s.
Baby talk helps bridge generation gaps.
The number one issue for professional communicators: building management support.
Leap over the barriers of internal communication.
What role shall we play today?
Behavioral and strategic bootcamp.
Communication or knowledge management?
Strategic communication: dead or in demand as never before?
KILL the Messenger!
Awareness to action: connecting employees to the bottom line.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters