Are Awkward “New Manager” Miscommunications Avoidable?

This is the second installment of a five-part ‘New Manager Toolkit’ series focused on science-based practices that can help new leaders transition into their expanded roles successfully.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

As a first-time manager, we hope that you’re developing the skills for managing yourself. But what skills are going to help you manage others better?

Miscommunication, or the lack of communication, is a common source of stress and error at work—and can stop a new manager’s progress cold. In a recent study by CareerBuilder, 33 percent of employees surveyed said that their leaders don’t communicate openly or honestly, 27 percent said they experienced major changes at work without warning, and 40 percent said that their managers don’t make an effort to listen to their employees or address morale.[1]

There are inevitable missteps and sticky situations in the transition to greater responsibility, but with these five insights, you can develop your ability to more powerfully manage others, while cultivating a productive and high-performing team environment.

1: Understand What Really Motivates Your People

If you were just promoted to team leader, chances are you’re inheriting an existing team with its own strengths and weaknesses. Start off right by immediately holding regular check-ins with your direct-reports to understand their goals and motivations at work.

In these meetings, ask questions about where your report would like to see him- or herself in 12 months—and what kind of support or collaboration would be most helpful from you. Make sure to share your goals as well so that they can understand how their work fits into the larger picture.

Additionally, ask about their preferred communication method (email, in person, phone) for positive and negative feedback so that you can minimize awkwardness later on. Mary Shapiro, professor of organizational behavior at Simmons College, says it’s better to have more check-ins at the beginning of your work together, whether they’re in person, over email, or even through progress reports.[2] Once you’ve had your initial one-on-one meetings where you are able to understand each other’s goals, make sure to revisit progress towards milestones at regular intervals.[3]

2: Sharpen Your Listening Skills

Listening involves more than just hearing words spoken by someone across the desk. It requires reading body language, understanding intention and meaning, and being truly interested in the person who’s talking.

When having your check-ins and team meetings, make sure you allow your team member to speak without interruption. Take note of their expressions, gestures, and vocal inflections. Many studies show that effective communication is at least 90 percent non-verbal communication and vocal tone. In fact, a recent study at the Yale University School of Management found that we’re better reading another person’s emotions through their vocal tone than through their facial expressions.[4]

3: Make Giving and Receiving Feedback a Habit

In your new position you’ll be giving feedback to your team—including feedback that is awkward, difficult, or unpleasant. When you do, make sure to accentuate the positive and highlight their progress, as well as identifying areas of improvement. Robert Mann, author of The Measure of a Leader, says, “The more you look at the positives in a problem, the more positively people react with one another.”[5] Managers at Google are encouraged to provide specific, constructive feedback that is tailored to each team member’s strengths.[6]

In your regular check-ins with your team and direct reports, work on your self-awareness by asking them for feedback, too. And be sure to listen (as in point #2) without justifying or defending your actions.

4: Be Compassionate

Part of being a leader is acting like one. And while several studies have shown that people who are perceived to be “leadership material” exhibit more narcissistic traits, the most inspiring and well-liked leaders show compassion and empathy for their subordinates. Bill George, CEO at Medtronic says that if others are “merely following our lead, then their efforts are limited to our vision and our directions,” rather than that of the company.[7] Compassionate leaders consistently bring out the best in their team, helping foster greater cooperation and higher performance.

5: Build Team Camaraderie

No manager is an island, and your team members shouldn’t be either. This doesn’t mean that your team members will ever become best friends, but the more they get to know each other, the better they’ll be able to work together, particularly in stressful or high-pressure situations.

Mary Shapiro says to “resist the urge to immediately start talking about the work and the task outcome,” and instead focus on fostering friendly cohesion.[2]

We know that being a first-time manager can be challenging and stressful. You’re no longer responsible for yourself but for the welfare, productivity, and performance of others. But if you approach your new position with compassion, a flexible attitude, and genuine interest and care for your people, you’ll be able to avoid sticky miscommunications and build a cohesive team.

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[1]“More Than One-Quarter of Managers Said They Weren’t Ready to Lead When They Began Managing Others, Finds New CareerBuilder Survey.”, March 28, 2011.

[2]O’Hara, Carolyn. “What New Team Leaders Should Do First.” Harvard Business Review, September 11, 2014.

[3]Taylor, Jessica. “5 Team-Building Activities Your Employees Won’t Hate.” The Muse.

[4]Kraus, Michael W. “Voice-Only Communication Enhances Empathic Accuracy.” American Psychologist 72:7 (2017), 644-654.

[5]Fallon, Nicole. “8 Ways to Become a Better Leader.” Business News Daily, May 11, 2017.

[6]Blodget, Henry. “8 Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers.” Business Insider, March 20, 2011.

[7]Tan, Chade-Meng. “Compassionate Leaders are Effective Leaders.” Greater Good Magazine, September 11, 2012.

Meghna Majmudar

Meghna is an experienced marketing and business development leader and executive coach. She is committed to working with organizations and leaders that are improving themselves and the world. You can connect with her on Twitter @meghnaspeaks or on Linkedin.

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