Melanie Nelson

President at MRN Consulting

Are You Communicating Well as a Manager?

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Image: radio concert in Hyde Park, London, 1931

I recently had lunch with someone newly promoted into management. I asked how it was going, and he confessed to feeling a bit overwhelmed, and struggling to find time to do what he termed “real work.”

That’s a normal reaction for new managers. Management work is fundamentally different from the work of someone classified as an “individual contributor.” It’s fairly common to feel like you’re constantly being interrupted — because you are. That is part of being in charge. You’re still doing real work. Making sure your team is functioning smoothly, and that team members are working on the right things at the right times, is real work. It’s just that your work product is much less visible.

Effective communication is a big part of succeeding in a management job, whether that position is in academe, the corporate world, or some other nonacademic sector. So I asked the new manager how he was gathering and distributing information. He said he didn’t want to have a bunch of stuffy, boring meetings or require “busy work” like status reports, so he just walked around and checked in with people every day or two.

That approach is fine if it is working for you and your team, but it didn’t sound like it was working for him. And I wasn’t surprised by that. In my experience, the “management by walking around” style typically only works for small teams of two or three members, and this manager had a team of five. Why does that strategy break down? I see two main reasons.

First, it eats up too much of a manager’s time. With a team of five, even 15 minutes with each person adds up to spending over an hour, usually every day, on this walk through. That may not seem like much, but remember, it’s an idealized minimum. In actuality, the practice takes much more time. The conversations will last longer than 15 minutes with at least one person — particularly if this comes to be seen as a way to get time and attention from the boss. People won’t be at their desks the first time you walk by, so you’ll have to make another circuit. An issue raised by the third person you talk with may require going back to the first person. As your team grows, the time you will spend on these walks will grow at least linearly. Before you know it, you are either spending half of your day on your walk through or resigning yourself to not knowing what is going on.

The second reason this approach breaks down as teams grow is that it can be disrespectful of the time of the rest of the team. Essentially, this method transfers the burden of the interruption from the manager to the team. When the team is small and working in close proximity, the manager probably times walkabouts so as not to interrupt people at their busiest. As the team grows and necessarily spreads out, the manager’s walkabouts are more likely to interrupt someone deep at work on something. The effects of interruptions on knowledge workers are well-documented: One study found that it takes workers an average of 23 minutes to return to the task they were working on before an interruption, and a study of software engineers found that they spent significant time “rebuilding context” before resuming work after an interruption.

I told my friend that he needed to take a second look at communicating via status reports and meetings.

I understand why people are hesitant to use these tools.We’ve all been scarred by pointless status reports that no one ever read and lengthy soul-sucking meetings that achieved nothing. We’ve all suffered through humiliating micromanagement in one-on-one meetings with managers. We vow that if we’re ever in charge, we won’t do those things, so we fall back on management by walking around.

However, the problem was not with the status reports, the meetings, or the one-on-ones. It was with their inept execution. Used well, the tools themselves can be effective.

Status reports. An extremely efficient method for exchanging information, status reports have the advantage of being asynchronous, so both the sender and the recipient can schedule the exchange in a way that doesn’t interrupt other work. To be useful, rather than pointless, the report must follow a concise, well-documented format that makes it easy for team members to know what to write and for the manager to know where to find key information. In addition, teams members must actually read — and act upon — the report.

There are many possible formats for a concise status report. Perhaps the simplest is the “weekly bullets” format, in which each team member sends an email with 2-4 key accomplishments for the week and 2-4 goals for the next week. Any issues requiring the attention of the manager can be mentioned after the bullets. Another popular format is the “stoplights” format, usually used for reporting on specific projects. The key goals of the projects are rated as green (on track), yellow (at risk), or red (at serious risk), and then accomplishments, goals, and issues are listed as with the weekly bullets.

The details of the format aren’t important, though. If you decide to incorporate status reports in your communication system, the most important things are to find a format that feels natural to you and your team and to read the reports religiously and visibly work to resolve any issues they raise.

Meetings. Like it or not, meetings can be an efficient way to share information, particularly if you are coordinating the work of a group of people. Rather than running around in an imitation of shuttle diplomacy, get everyone in a room at a defined time and figure out the plan.

The key to using meetings well is to be respectful of everyone’s time. That means:

  • Schedule the meeting when all of the necessary people can be there.
  • Don’t invite unnecessary people.
  • Have an agenda and stick to it. Small digressions are fine, and even good from the standpoint of building team rapport, but large digressions need to be cut off and set aside for another time.
  • Start and finish on time.
  • If you assign people to take certain follow-up steps, they must be completed. Failure to do so must bring consequences.

One-on-one meetings. These are almost essential. Don’t use them to micromanage, but instead, as a chance to listen closely for any sign of a problem that hasn’t been raised with you yet. I don’t use one-on-one meetings to gather status updates; I have other meetings for that. I use one-on-ones for mentoring and career development with my team, and as a way to learn about a problem before it blows up into a disaster.

I cannot count the number of times my first clue that trouble was brewing came from an uncomfortable silence when I asked someone “how’s it going?” in a one-on-one meeting. Chances are, your people want to tell you what’s going wrong, but something is holding them back. Maybe they don’t really know the full details yet. Maybe they are afraid of being seen as whining. Maybe they’re afraid you’ll shoot the messenger. Whatever the reason, a regularly scheduled one-on-one meeting is your best way to overcome their concerns and hear what they have to say.

Effective one-on-ones must be held on a regular schedule. That allows team members to plan for their meeting and makes it nonconfrontational — even when you have to deliver difficult performance feedback. You lead the meeting, but your primary role here is to listen closely. If you need to tell people that their work is not up to standards lately, turn it into a discussion and ask them what is going on. Most people want to do good work. If they aren’t, there is probably a reason, and if you’re lucky, it will be a reason you can resolve, if you know about it.

Even as new modes of communication become mainstream, the old standbys retain their management value. For instance, I love Slack and other chat tools in the office. I love how they allow an entire team to collaborate asynchronously, and I love how I can dip into various channels to catch up on the day-to-day work without bothering anyone for a special update. However, there is still value in asking people to summarize what they see as their important accomplishments in a status report. There is still value in meetings in which people break out of the asynchronous model and focus on the same issues at the same time. And there is definitely still value in sitting down with each team member and checking in on a regular schedule.

As you build your own process for keeping up-to-date as a manager, don’t rule out any tool just because it has been misused in the past. Look at what you want to accomplish, and design a communication system that will allow you to do that — without consuming your workday.

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