Managers must read between the lines of employee communication

 “I thought everything was going great,” a Plant Manager shared with me recently. “I have an Open Door Policy, so everyone knows if there is anything they want to talk to me about, all they have to do is come and see me.” Apparently he shouldn’t have been so confident. Employee turnover started to soar and exit interviews eventually pointed to ineffective supervisors.  

Many senior managers offer an “open door” because it is a way of keeping communication open between themselves and the employees. These senior managers want to make sure that their supervisors are doing a good job with their employees and this allows employees to go around their supervisors, directly to the manager’s office.  

This agreement works fine, as long as the senior manager doesn’t undercut the supervisors’ authority. Instead, he or she should listen but then ask, “Have you discussed this with your supervisor?” If not, the employee should be sent back to try that avenue first. It’s usually appropriate to bring the supervisor into the discussion, or sometimes to work as a threesome to resolve it.  

Employees usually won’t visit a manager unless something is wrong, or they want to convey a subtle message or give a “head’s up” about a pending problem. A smart manager realizes this and learns to listen between the lines: 

Here are the subtle clues to watch for:  

Employees come in constantly to complain or ask questions.
If employees are “taking numbers” to get in to see you, something is wrong with their relationships with their supervisors. Sometimes this happens when supervisors are weak and defer decision-making to a higher authority. Another potential problem is favoritism. If employees feel that their boss can’t be trusted to do what’s fair, they will beat a path to the senior manager’s door. The manager may also be the problem. He or she may jump in and try to solve all the issues, instead of holding their supervisors and employees accountable. 

Employees never come in to complain or ask questions.
While this could be a “no news is good news” situation, a manager shouldn’t be complacent. It’s time to get out of the office and wander around to talk to people. After a few weeks of small talk and relationship building, employees may start sharing some of their issues. If they don’t, the manager can rest a little easier that perhaps there really isn’t any bad “news” he needs to know. The manager should continue to wander around with enough frequency to keep the channels open.  

When employees stop in, they seem to bring up several topics before they get to the real reason they came.
If employees seem to circle around the real issue, it’s probably a trust problem. The employees may fear the manager’s reaction and are testing to see how receptive he or she is to their issue. They may also need to ramp up to the topic because they aren’t sure how appropriate it is to discuss with the manager. If the issue is sensitive, say, it involves a problem with their own supervisor, they may worry that they are going to jeopardize their situation. For all these reasons, a Type A manager, who is always in a rush, may lose out on what is really going on, if he or she doesn’t make time to really listen when an employee stops by.  

Employees who stop in to talk are usually from the same department(s).
If most of the employees are from the maintenance department and the scheduling departments, the manager shouldn’t dismiss it as coincidence. What is going on in those two departments that is driving this need to stop in to visit their boss’s boss so frequently? It’s time to respond to the red flag and sniff around a little to see what’s at the heart of it.  

Employees only engage in small talk—sports, weather, families—and never talk about real work issues.
This could be good news, or bad news, so it’s important to pay attention. For example, if the employees feel that the manager is unapproachable—or feared—they may stick to superficial topics. If they feel that the way to get things done is to be on the “good side” of the manager, their communication will tend to be social and highly political. When the conversation moves easily from small talk to open business talk, the communication channels are healthy ones.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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