Employee communication. It can be a big topic but having good lines of communication within a team is vital to long term success. Teams that are able to communicate openly often report less stress, higher engagement, and more loyalty to their managers and the company as a whole. They often have a better understanding of the company and it’s goals and are more invested in being part of the company culture. Transparency and respect are, of course, key cornerstones to whether an employee will stay in a position or move on. But when we talk about effective communication styles, sometimes they only go so far. We all wish we were in a position where we could have open and honest communication all the time but the reality is sometimes when jobs are on the line, communication breaks down. Sometimes employees have questions or concerns they want to raise but don’t feel safe or secure enough to do so. Part of this boils down to how much psychological safety is present within a team but even with great companies, there can be some tricky topics to bring up. Let’s explore a few questions your employees might not know how to ask you, but really wish you knew.
What employees struggle to talk about
When it comes to communication between management and employees, some topics might be harder to raise but could be seriously impacting the employee’s quality of work-life. Here are a few of the bigger ones managers should watch for.
1) I have a major personal or health issue to deal with.
Nearly every person has some kind of personal issue happening in their life at some time. This can be situational or chronic. It’s been estimated that one in five working adults in the U.S. suffers from some form of mental illness. This can often be embarrassing to talk about with management for fear of being considered weak or untrustworthy. Big issues will likely be brought up (ie, a parent having a health crisis for example) but smaller health problems may be brushed under the rug. If an employee starts taking extra sick days or appears sick or exhausted at work, it might be a sign something larger is going on under the surface that they could use some support with. That support can come as extra time off, assurance about their job security, flexible scheduling around doctor appointments, or sometimes even just a sympathetic ear.
2) Why didn’t I get that promotion?
Work performance issues can be terrible to even think about, let alone have a conversation about with your boss. And it goes both ways. In fact, 9 in 10 managers report struggling to give constructive feedback to their direct reports. Because of the awkwardness of discussing performance, there can sometimes be misalignment. Employees might feel like they’ve been giving their best efforts without being noticed and managers might wish they were working in a different way. Having open conversations about performance and expectations throughout the year can help avoid resentment over missed promotions or opportunities. And if an employee is up for a promotion they don’t get, make sure to have a conversation about what they need to reach the next level and what a reasonable timeline for that would look like.
3) I’m having trouble with the team.
Most people try to focus on the positive side of work but this can be made a lot harder when there is a conflict between co-workers. Remember, people spend much of their lives in an office with peers they don’t get to choose. No one wants to admit they don’t like their colleagues but there can be personality or work ethic issues that arise on a team and cause friction. The solution? Get ahead of it. Team building activities can be used to help break the ice and reengaged the team. Personality assessments can be used when hiring to try and create a team that will work well together. And ongoing self-development or 360 assessments can be used to help team members realize their colleagues might just be communicating or working in a different way than they are.
4) I’m becoming disengaged.
At some point, most jobs, especially those requiring a regular routine, will reach the limited of what they can provide in terms of new or exciting work. After all, everyone has had those mornings when you wake up and wish you could just stay in bed today. The problem is, even if an employee is getting disengaged with their work, they probably won’t say anything for fear of extra responsibilities being added to their plate or of being viewed as a complainer. Managers who note the engagement shift can help by setting up a meeting where you can have a candid conversation about what the employee likes best about their work or, if they’re comfortable, likes least. That knowledge can be used to see if there are any open projects that might appeal to the positive aspects the employee enjoys or if there are any extra resources or strategies that can help combat the parts they like least. Some companies allow their workers to rotate through different positions every few months to help combat this reality of work. Now, that’s not to say that every job has this sort of wiggle room but even in positions where adjustments can’t be made, managers can always help by showing extra appreciation for jobs well done.
5) I made a mistake.
This one is a big one. No one ever wants to have to say the words, “I was wrong,” but in a work context, those words can have long-reaching consequences. Employees may fear being reprimanded, having their reputation damaged, or even losing their job over a mistake they’ve made. If you want your employees to come to you when they need help, then they have to trust that you have their best interests at heart. This all goes back to the power of psychological safety on a team. Teams that have it are more likely to take risks, be innovative, speak up, and admit to mistakes because they aren’t working in a state of stress or fear. How do you encourage psychological safety? It has to start with the manager. The team culture they create will dictate the amount of psychological safety their workers perceive. Managers can encourage this kind of safety by walking their talk, being trustworthy, taking a personal interest in employees, admitting their own mistakes publicly, and encouraging creativity and curiosity.
6) I have an idea.
In a similar vein, sometimes employees won’t speak up about new ideas because they fear what will happen if they do. If their plate is already full, employees might keep their thoughts to themselves to avoid taking on the extra workload. They could also not be comfortable with speaking up in a team meeting setting or they could even be worried about how their boss would react if the idea isn’t as good as they think it is. To encourage idea generation, again, psychological safety will go a long way. But you can also implement anonymous suggestion boxes, hackathon days, brainstorming parties or other fun ways to get people engaged with each other and churning out ideas without judgment.
Bridging the communication gap
Humans are complex creatures and the ways in which we interact are far from simple. It can be a challenge to be both a great manager to your team and keep all projects and deadlines on track. How you approach effective employee communication can make all the difference to your team’s success. Keeping an open door policy in effect and working on open two-way communication can help create a culture of trust. But keep in mind, some employees might not be comfortable with face-to-face interactions and might prefer using a mobile app or email strategy instead. Anonymous employee surveys can also help to uncover any issues that might relevant to bring up as a whole team, especially if you do them on a regular basis. While a company’s success might not depend on your stellar communication methods, the engagement levels of your team could. So before you close the door and get to chipping away at your workload, think about what your employees might not be saying and what you can do to bring those words to light.