Merriam-Webster defines “manager” as “a person who directs a team or athlete.” If a new manager were to only use this as their guide when managing people, they would probably do ok.  

They may achieve some success by being put into an easy situation (hard-working team, effective boss, etc.). They may simply create a bunch of projects with the hope that some will be successful and overshadow any that were not successful.

Per the definition, a “manager” is simply someone who directs the team towards the goal. This could mean emailing out the monthly goals for the department to the team without any context or discussion. That could be considered “directing the team.”

“Directing the team” could also mean micro-managing every step they take – laying out the process, giving the orders to be followed exactly, and not allowing any discussion or feedback from the employees.

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To Merriam-Webster’s credit, the official definition sums up the basic role of a manager in a short amount of words. However, it doesn’t define what it means to be an effective manager and what that looks like in everyday behaviors.

If you asked employees what they think is the top skill managers need to be effective, most will say “communication.” But what does “communication” look like? What does it sound like? How can we take a vague word and turn it into clear and actionable behaviors that we can practice?

We are going to share the top five workplace communication skills that a manager needs to be effective in their role. Practicing these techniques consistently will result in better team communication, increased employee engagement, and improved business results.

Be Empathetic creative

Being sympathetic means feeling sorrow for someone else’s situation. An example would be, if an employee shared with you that they were going through a rough time, you telling them “I’m sorry for that.” And that’s it. You are telling them you feel sad for them, which is good. However, the more effective way to relate to that employee is to be empathetic.

Being empathetic means you imagine feeling the same feelings the other person has. Taking this different perspective causes you to feel how they feel, and it gives you a better understanding of how to approach it. If you were in the same situation, what would you want to hear from your manager? What behaviours of theirs would make you feel as if they truly understood what you were going through? That is the power of empathy.

Being empathetic does not mean being weak. Being empathetic does not mean being emotional. You can feel empathy for someone and still hold them accountable for their performance. If an employee is going through a rough time, there’s a good chance that they feel like they’re alone in the situation. Showing employees you are empathetic to their situation makes them feel like they have support, and therefore someone to help them get through it.

It doesn’t even have to be a personal situation outside of work. It could be their frustration in learning a new system that no else has tried to work with before. It could be that there is no formal training for their job, making them feel like they are making mistakes because they don’t have a guide to help them.  Being empathetic helps you understand the other person, and employees want to be understood.

Be an Active Listener

  • Be an active listener

Notice how it doesn’t say “Listen.” because there’s a difference between listening and active listening. Listening is where you hear the other person and remember a couple of points, but not the entire message (or even the purpose of the message).

Active Listening is showing you are laser-focused on the other person – you are asking questions to make sure you understand them, you are not trying to multitask, and you are focusing on what is not said as much as what is said. Active Listeners ask themselves “What are they feeling?” during a conversation because the person might not explicitly tell you what they are feeling.

Notice how active listening is focused on the *other* person. Whenever you are actively listening to an employee, you are not jumping to conclusions, waiting for your turn to talk, or trying to finish their sentences. You are taking the information they give you and adapting your response to it.

By actively listening, you are showing the employee that this conversation matters and that they matter. When an employee feels like they matter to their manager, it creates a bond and loyalty that can lead to great success for both sides.

Be able to manage conflict

  • Be able to manage conflict

It doesn’t matter if you have one employee or 100 employees – there will always be conflict when two people are together. As a manager, your job is to manage the conflict so both parties (two employees, you and another employee, etc.) can work out their differences. Employees do not need to be best friends, and forcing any sort of “positive thinking only” can end up doing more harm than good.

As a manager, you will usually be the person an employee comes to about another employee. You will act as an objective party, where you have no allegiance to one side or the other, and your only goal is teamwork.

The most important thing to do with conflict is to create a culture where conflict is handled professionally. Employees don’t have to agree with each other all the time, but they do have to work with each other to address and resolve the conflict. As a manager, you need to model this behavior by showing your employees how to objectively discuss an issue, take different perspectives, and ultimately resolve the conflict.

Be willing to appear vulnerable

  • Be willing to appear vulnerable

Managers want their employees to feel the manager is in that role for a reason. Managers do not want their employees to think they are incompetent, because who is going to listen to someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing? This fear of a negative perception can cause managers to hide their mistakes, not take accountability for errors, and try to appear as if they’re perfect. Unfortunately, behaving this way will not make employees want to work for you.

Employees need a manager they can relate to. Everyone makes mistakes, and it is important, as an employee, to feel that you can make mistakes (as long as you learn from them). If an employee feels like their boss acts like a “know-it-all”, then they’re not going to relate to the manager. Feeling like you can’t relate to your manager makes you disengage from work, and it eventually leads to poor performance or voluntary turnover.

As a manager, you need to be vulnerable with your employees. Admit your mistakes and, more importantly, what you learned from them. When you show your employees that you’re not immune to mistakes, you appear relatable and more “real”. Employees want to feel you are authentic, and any feeling of superiority or “fakeness” will prevent your team from connecting with you and the business overall.

Be transparent

  • Be transparent

Managers live in a different “reality” than front-line employees. You are in-and-out of meetings, you are removed from the “day-by-day” of tasks your employees perform to keep the business running, and you are given access to sensitive information.

Naturally, employees want to feel like they should know everything that is going on in a business. The sensitive information that you have access to, without context, could confuse your employees. However, you cannot leave them out there with no information at all.

An important skill for managers is to be transparent. You may not be able to share everything you know with your employees, but they deserve to know the state of the business and how their work is affecting the “big picture”.

You can even be transparent by telling them that you can’t tell them everything, but you will communicate with them on the items that affect them. A manager who is honest with their team inspires loyalty, connection, and trust. When your team believes you are working for them instead of above them, you can achieve great results.

These skills are critical to your success as a manager, but this is not a checklist where you try to establish all of these in a week. It will take time for you to build a connection with your team. You can’t expect them to trust you on day 1, but these behaviors will put you on a path towards that trust.

There’s a saying that employees don’t leave companies – they leave managers. 

Employees will leave managers even if they like every other part of their job; that’s how impactful a manager can be to an employee. If you practice these skills consistently, your team will see you as someone who is competent, trustworthy and is invested in helping them reach their goals. 

The better you communicate with these skills, the better employees you are going to have, which will make your business more effective and successful.

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