OK, so we’re all agreed that managers are the key to fostering employee engagement — that combination of enthusiasm and loyalty so critical to an organization’s success. But what are the tools managers must have to elicit that enthusiasm and loyalty?
Clearly, they’ve got to know their jobs — the nuts and bolts of the daily operation, what needs to get done and by whom. But the experts say truly effective managers have another thing going for them: They have the “soft skills.”
We can see a lot of old-school supervisors’ eyes glazing over as they hear that phrase. “I’ll tell ’em what to do, and they’ll do it or they’re outta here.”
That may have worked for Henry Ford, but it ain’t gonna fly today.
So at the risk of getting a little touchy-feely, here’s an overview of some of the most important soft skills managers need in the 21st century.
Yes, this one’s a no-brainer. But ironically, good communication depends more on a person’s ability to listen than on his or her ability to speak. When supervisors listen well, they absorb issues, understand feelings, foresee potential problems and solutions, and eventually communicate the right decisions in the right tone.
Any manager can hear and parrot back information. Good leaders listen so they can process the information.
Offer your managers these tips to better listening:
- Shut out distractions. When employees, colleagues, clients or customers need their managers, it’s important to give them undivided attention by talking privately at an arranged time with no distractions (e-mail, phones, paperwork).
Tip: Often, employees ask their managers, “Do you have a minute?” If they don’t have time, managers can respond, “I only have a minute right now. If you need more time, I’d be happy to arrange a meeting later today.”
- Take notes. This serves two purposes: It helps managers remember what’s been said and keeps track of the most important facts and emotions. It’s also a sure sign the supervisor’s paying close attention.
- Hold your tongue. Avoid interrupting speakers, especially in one-on-one conversations. Let others get through the facts and emotions. Often, just spilling their guts is enough to make them feel better.
- Don’t judge. Put aside unrelated personal feelings about people and their circumstances when listening to them. Instead, focus on the facts and acknowledge emotions.
- Be patient. Managers sometimes don’t agree with what employees, co-workers, clients and customers say – and stop listening because they’re focusing on their rebuttal. Instead, they should continue to listen and note their points when it’s their turn to talk.
- Respond, don’t react. Finally, when you’re done listening and ready to talk, focus on giving a response rather than a reaction.
What’s the difference? A response is a balance of thought and emotion, and often includes a question so you can better understand. A reaction is an emotional response, often overlooking the substance of what the other party said.
In most cases, actions speak louder than words. If a manager says, “I like your work,” and rolls his or her eyes, the words aren’t believable. In fact, research has found:
- The words we choose have a 7% impact on how a person interprets what he or she is told
- Tone of voice has a 38% impact, and
- Body language has a 55% impact.
That’s why it’s important for managers to make sure their body language send the correct message. They can do this by keeping these non-verbal communication cues in check:
- Eye contact. Looking directly at people when speaking shows respect and sincerity. It builds a better conversation and relationship. On the flip side, leaders who avoid eye contact appear to be sneaky, guilty, bashful or frightened.
Caveat: Avoid staring or blinking rapidly. Instead, look away from time to time to appear relaxed and comfortable. Tip: If maintaining eye contact is uncomfortable, focus on the bridge of the listener’s nose. This gives the appearance of looking someone in the eye.
- Body position. Conversing while standing or sitting side-by-side can make people feel disconnected, and when done face-to-face can be uncomfortable. Ideally, it’s best to keep the same eye level and remain at a slight angle from others. In addition, maintaining good posture shows confidence so others will pay attention.
- Proper distance. Being too close or too far from others during a conversation can make it less productive. Stay within arm’s reach. Also, pay attention to people’s body language. If they seem uncomfortable, give them a little more space.
- Gestures. Motion can add meaning to or detract from messages. Remember: Crossed arms signal anger or lack of openness to ideas. Playing with clothing, jewelry, pencils, etc., distracts listeners. Large gestures also distract the audience.
- Facial expressions. A person’s face speaks the loudest in non-verbal communication. Forced smiles show insincerity. A wrinkled forehead shows tension. Pursed lips suggest anger. Rolling eyes or head tilts indicate disapproval.
Managers have to do this so often, you’d think they’d be better at it. But it’s not easy.
Managers have to say no to people and ideas, or they’d never get anything done. However, it’s best to give a no answer in a way that doesn’t make the person with the request feel rejected.
- Empathize. When managers can’t do what people want or can’t give employees permission to do something, they need to let them know they understand the situation.
- Clarify. Leaders should explain why they have to refuse the request.
- Offer something. It’s best for managers to end the denial on a positive note by telling people how they’re willing to help. Examples:
“I see you need some help, but your request is outside normal procedures. Have you considered … ?”
“I can tell this is important to you. It’s a unique situation. I can help you by … ” or
“I’d like to do that, but it’s beyond what’s possible for us. Please let me help you in another way.”
No matter how good managers are, they still have to deal with employees who find fault with nearly everything. Their resistance at every turn is enough to make the best managers lose their cool – and forget their people skills.
To handle resistance with eloquence, suggest they follow these steps:
- Table the conversation. When it’s obvious someone isn’t going to agree, say, “Let’s stop here. I feel like we’re stuck and need some time away from this subject.”
- Recap the original goal. When it’s time to broach the topic again, start with a recap: “I wanted to tell you about the new circumstances we will all face and to gain your help in handling it.”
- Review the past — but only briefly. Try to move beyond the last conversation. For instance, “When we last talked, you were confrontational, making it hard for us to focus on the issue. Let’s try to keep that from happening again.”
- Admit fault, if appropriate. Managers should admit how they contributed to the issue. Example: “I became defensive when you questioned my decisions.”
- Call it as you see it. Let people know what you think has caused their resistance. You might say, “It seems you’re worried this means you’ll have more work to do, and that naturally makes you angry.”
- Make them part of the solution. Get resistors’ help in coming to a resolution. Try this: “I want us to figure out how to make the best of this” or “I have some ideas on what we could try, but I want to know where you think we should go from here.”