6 Ways to Open the Lines of Communication

Sandra Matke, Associate Editor
Posted on August 1, 2000

After the manager of the local dairy retired, service just wasn’t the same. Workers came in late and customers complained. No one could determine the difference between the old manager and the new one — until they asked the employees. The old manager, employees said, greeted them each morning when they arrived. He cared about his workers. What the employees didn’t know was that the manager talked to them each morning to determine whether or not they were fit to work. He smelled their breath for alcohol and watched their eyes for signs of sleepiness. All they saw was someone who paid attention to them as individuals. Whatever his motivation, the former manager was a leader, seeking out opportunities to communicate with his employees. His strategy — approaching each worker every morning — earned him the respect and dedication of his staff. As managers, it is easy to get too busy to think about communication skills. But, as you can see from the example, effective communication can make all the difference in the world. The following six strategies can help to improve manager-employee communication.

1. Be where they are
Having an “open door” means nothing if employees are afraid to walk through it. “Most drivers are really intimidated to walk up to the ‘boss’ and start talking to him,” explains Brigden Summers, branch manager for Laidlaw Education Services in Stockton, Calif. To reduce apprehension on the part of his employees, Summers spends time with his drivers in a casual atmosphere. Not only does he make sure to have the office closest to where the drivers gather, he joins his drivers daily for lunch in the break room. “It’s amazing what you’ll learn just by doing that on a daily basis,” he says. “People will find out that the boss usually eats lunch about this time, and they’ll just show up.” Summers has also altered his work schedule to more closely resemble that of his drivers. Instead of coming in at 8 a.m., he comes in at 6 a.m. At least three times a month, and sometimes more, he will come in at 4:45 a.m. to greet the drivers and watch them roll out. “Just standing out there and greeting them improves morale. And you’ll be surprised how many times somebody will pull you aside and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.’”

2. Learn to listen
How do you react when a driver comes into your office with a concern or a complaint? For example, what would you say to a driver who storms in and shouts, “I’ve had it with those kids! No matter how many times I warn them, no matter what I do, they just won’t quiet down. It’s driving me crazy”? Here are some tempting, but ineffective answers: “You know the process. Fill out referrals.” “It’s the same problem every day. You have to learn to deal with it.” “Let me see what I can do. We’ll go over that at our next meeting.” “All you ever do is complain.” Answers such as these block communication and alienate employees. In fact, supplying an answer at all may be the wrong approach, says Andrew LeCompte, president of Let’s Talk, a communications consulting company in Portsmouth, N.H. When you respond to an angry or frustrated employee, you have a tendency to judge him and to respond negatively, explains LeCompte. Before speaking, stop, take a breath and ask yourself, “What could this person’s positive intention possibly be?” From there, you can begin to develop some compassion for him and speak to him more effectively. Instead of providing an answer, says LeCompte, ask a question. For example, you might respond to the above employee with, “Is that upsetting because you want to make sure your passengers have a safe ride?” Usually, he explains, the guess will be slightly off, but the driver will substitute what his real intention was. He may respond, “I just want to have control over the bus and feel like the kids respect me.” In voicing his positive intention, the driver’s thinking is switched from negative to positive, and he is better equipped to tackle his problem.

3. Watch your body language
Even if you don’t immediately shoot down an employee’s suggestion, you may be scaring him away with non-verbal communication. To understand this concept, think back to when you were a child and your mother would look at you in that way that clearly said, “No.” According to Alberta Lloyd, vice president of Coleman Management Consultants in Atlanta, improper body language can have effects you’re not even aware of. “I think that’s where a lot of people get in trouble, is on the non-verbal side. Even though we don’t use words, we still send messages,” she says. Examples of non-verbal clues are tone of voice (snotty, sarcastic, condescending), rolling the eyes, snorting and huffing, stomping away, fiddling with glasses, picking at an earring, twisting hair, clearing the throat or lifting an eyebrow. This does not mean that you should be afraid to move. It means that you should be aware of how you move. Try to make your body and your words match. Otherwise, you lose your credibility. Donna Alosa, manager of First Student Inc.’s Nashua, N.H., location, says non-verbal communication destroyed one of her training sessions. “I was actually teaching a class that I didn’t agree with,” she says. And non-verbal clues gave her away. “The drivers knew it immediately. I’ll never do that again.” Lloyd recommends two strategies for getting in touch with your non-verbal tendencies: 1) Ask someone you trust and who knows you well to tell you what your signals are. For example: How do they know you’re mad, without you even speaking? 2) Videotape yourself. In fact, videotaping the work environment and using it as a learning tool for everyone is highly effective.

4. Respect personal styles
As a manager, it’s important to understand, accept and even appreciate the individual differences of your employees. These differences can be as obvious as race and sex or as subtle as life experience and personality. Jeffrey Drake, president of AchieveMax Inc., a communication consultant in Grand Blanc, Mich., says that a manager should be aware of four key behavioral styles he may encounter in his workforce:

No-nonsense — Focused on getting the job done; task-oriented, likes to take decisive action and takes pride in a job well done.

People-focused — Thrives on relationships; works from a team viewpoint; wants people to get along and support each other.

Detail-oriented — Likes to think things through and dislikes being rushed to get something done; wants to do a quality job; prefers to work in a step-by-step way.

Enthusiastic-adaptive — Reacts to situations immediately and adapts to different work experiences as long as they are interesting and motivational. Identifying the different behavioral styles is important to effective teamwork. For example, says Drake, the no-nonsense type supervisor will get more work accomplished from the people-focused person if he allows for freedom to interact with others. Lloyd of Coleman Management Consultants agrees that it is vital to get to know the styles of the people on your team. More important, she says, is to react to that knowledge by treating people according to their behavior type. “You have to manage yourself around others to meet their needs,” she says. “It’s like tuning in a radio to the right type of music.” Each member of a team has a natural tendency to fill his own needs rather than those of his teammates. That’s what gets us in trouble, says Lloyd. To better understand your relationship with your coworkers, compare it to your relationship with your children or your siblings. “You treat each of your children a little bit differently,” says Lloyd. “Why? Because you come out of their needs.” Observe the individual styles of the people on your team and treat each individual according to his style, explains Lloyd. If a worker likes to be blunt and direct in speaking, speak that way to him, versus speaking the way you like to be spoken to.

5. Share information
The worst-case scenario for information exchange between a manager and an employee is the annual salary review, says LeCompte. “It makes communication impossible because the person’s financial future is at stake. They’re not in a position where they can admit weakness.” What you should do, instead, is have regular formal and informal interaction with your employees. Do whatever would help to reduce fear in communication, he says. Generally, meeting in person is best, but telephone and written communication can also be effective. If you don’t share information, the grapevine may take over as the primary source of information. At First Student, Alosa shares information with her 120 employees in a weekly paycheck update. The written update accompanies each paycheck and includes such items as guidelines and regulations, reminders of upcoming events, recognition of employees, safety notices and more. She also writes daily reminders on a white board in the drivers’ lounge. Sometimes she puts individual notes on timecards. But the heart of her communication system, she says, is daily verbal interaction with her employees. “Speak to your drivers every day,” she advises. “Be out there when the buses come in and out. Wave goodbye or ride their routes with them.” The extra attention, she says, goes a long way toward building team spirit. Summers’ drivers at Laidlaw get that personal attention as well. Every morning, Summers reads a short safety message over the radio to his drivers. Topics include loading zone safety, driving in the rain, pre-trip inspections, safe driving distance and more. He also publishes a monthly newsletter that features a safety article, updates on local events, thanks to employees for particular contributions, employee anniversaries and other information specific to the branch. When it comes to emptying the suggestion box, he responds to the suggestions in writing and posts both suggestion and response on the wall for everyone to see. In sharing this information with the drivers, he is letting his employees know that he cares about what they have to say.

6. Build a team
One of the more common ways to communicate information to the staff is to form committees. At Southwest Student Transportation in McKinney, Texas, there are three driver committees — the Policies and Procedures Committee, the Hospitality/Incentive Committee and the Safety Committee. The Policies and Procedures Committee is made up of drivers and managers who discuss the effectiveness of existing policies. Often, the policies reviewed are those dealing with accidents and employee discipline. “They [committee members] have some good ideas,” says Mike Williams, the company’s corporate operations director. “We have changed some policies based on their recommendations.” The Hospitality/Incentive Committee plans socials and other functions for the drivers. The Safety Committee, which meets every time there is an accident, reviews the company’s response to the accident and determines the impact of the accident on the company. Committee members are nominated by their coworkers or chosen by management and are rotated every two to three months. Why bring drivers into these meetings? “School bus drivers are smart people,” explains Williams. “They are very professional and well-trained — and need to be listened to.” Aside from committees, there are other ways to foster the team spirit and to increase employee participation in the company. Laidlaw, for example, has formed an alliance with Children’s Miracle Network. Laidlaw employees in Concord, Calif., have raised money for the charity in various ways — voluntary payroll deductions, raffles, car washes, bake sales and working in booths at athletic events. These after-hours activities have brought employees closer together and made them a stronger team at work, says Area General Manager Barbara Perry. “These are ways to communicate to our drivers that we have the common goal of caring,” she says.

Related Topics: morale

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