Close the Relationship Gap in Your Organization

One of the biggest productivity and performance gaps in most organizations is the distance that separates an organization’s managers from their direct reports. Close work relationships that include frequent conversations, clear goals and candid feedback can improve collaboration, execution and performance.

Distant relationships cause resistance, mistakes and lower productivity as employees satisfy the minimum requirements of their job descriptions but not much more. There are four skills that every manager needs to possess to bring out the best in people — the ability to build trust, to listen, to deliver feedback effectively and to manage challenging conversations.

In 2011, The Ken Blanchard Cos. released research findings on employee work passion that indicate feedback, connectedness and a sense of justice are all positively correlated to employee intentions to perform at a high level, apply discretionary effort, endorse an organization and support fellow workers in ways that are respectful and considerate.

Not providing employees with adequate feedback on performance, not recognizing their improvements and ideas, or not ensuring that policies and procedures are fairly and consistently applied to all has repercussions. Without these things employees are more likely to engage in unproductive or even financially damaging behaviors such as passive aggressiveness and bare-minimum performance, and higher turnover can result.

There are two aspects of positive work relationships. The first is the degree to which the manager and direct report have a productive business relationship — meaning they are winning together, accomplishing goals and creating success.

The second aspect is the emotional, or affective, part of the relationship. This includes intangibles such as trust and positive feelings. The aforementioned study indicates the strongest correlations between the factors that create a passionate work environment revolve around an employee’s overall feeling of well-being in the workplace and his or her intentions to remain with an organization, to endorse the organization and its leadership, and to apply discretionary effort above and beyond minimum requirements when necessary.

Trust Is Hard Earned and Easily Lost
The reality is, today’s workforce remains largely disaffected and lacks trust in senior leaders. A 2011 employee satisfaction report from Maritz Research found that “Poor communication, lack of perceived caring, inconsistent behavior and perceptions of favoritism” were cited by respondents as the largest contributors. As a result, the report identified that “only 10 percent of employees trust management to make the right decision in times of uncertainty” and only 12 percent believe their employers genuinely listen to and care about their employees.

It may sound cliche and simple, but people often don’t care what leaders know until they know that they care. Employees value leaders who connect with the workforce on an emotional level. A 2010 Towers Watson global workforce report found the most-desired attributes employees wanted in senior leaders were trustworthiness (79 percent) and concern for the well-being of others (67 percent).

For managers looking to improve employee trust levels, there are several questions to ask reflectively: Are you trustworthy and reliable? Can employees count on you in a pinch? Do you have a clean and clear relationship emotionally with your employees?

Cindy Olmstead, a business consultant and trust expert, has an ABCD model that can help managers assess their behavior. The model also can help open up conversations between managers and direct reports if some past behavior has created a sense of distrust.

Able: Do you demonstrate competence in your job?

Believable: Do you act with integrity?

Connected: Do you demonstrate that you care about others?

Dependable: Do you perform in a consistent and reliable manner?

By looking at these four subcomponents of trust, managers and direct reports have a greater chance of successfully identifying and resolving behaviors that can lead to a negative perception.

Listening as a Skill
Another bedrock foundation of a good relationship is the manager’s ability to fully understand and “get” the direct report. To accomplish that, people need to feel deeply understood and listened to.

For many years, active listening was taught in leadership development programs as the gold standard. Active listening went beyond being quiet and focused to include understanding. Listeners could demonstrate this by repeating back to the speaker what they had just heard.

Recently, many practitioners have been advocating an additional component to take listening to a higher level — the ability to “listen with the intention of being influenced.”

While this is not something that can be as easily demonstrated, it can be easily recognized by the speaker. People act and respond differently when they are actually considering what a speaker is saying as opposed to waiting to respond, dismiss or take the conversation in a different direction. When people are listening with the intention of possibly being influenced or having their minds changed, their responses, body language and questions are different. People sit forward in their chairs naturally and ask to hear more. The technique encourages listening to grow and can be a powerful way to contribute to a person truly feeling heard.

The Problem With Feedback
Over the years, leaders have been taught a feedback model based on a pipe dream. The pipe dream is that a manager will sit down with a person, have a conversation with him or her pointing out the behaviors that need to change, and then that person will hear what the manager is saying, agree with the assessment, and successfully change his or her behavior permanently. That almost never happens, and when it does it’s only by accident.

What typically happens is that managers see behavior they don’t like and decide to give the employee feedback about it. Typically, the employee sees the situation differently and doesn’t agree. Further, if the employee has any type of negative relationship with the manager, he or she often will discount or devalue the feedback. The employee, in turn, also will have feedback he or she would like to give. Now there is a defensive atmosphere.

Feedback must be approached carefully, and a manager needs to lower expectations for the initial feedback session. Behavioral change is almost always a drawn-out affair, and managers need to be prepared to work with an employee over an extended period of time to achieve lasting change.

Managers also have to make sure they are not using feedback as a soft sell of what should be a direct request for behavioral change. For example, if someone is answering the telephone in an inappropriate way, often managers — especially young managers — will use an indirect approach, saying, “Mary, I have some feedback for you around the way you just answered that phone call.” They position what should be a direct request to change as feedback.

A better way for managers to approach this is to make a direct request. “Mary, I just heard you answer the phone this way and, as your manager, I need you to answer the phone this other way. Here’s my reasoning behind that. Are you willing to comply with my request?”

A manager may still get into a drawn-out conversation, but leading with a direct request is a better way to begin than soft-pedaling the request as feedback, which implies there is some choice on the employee’s part as to whether to act on it.

A direct request is the more appropriate approach and has a higher likelihood of success when behavior needs to change. As a side benefit, people also will see the manager as more direct and open with this approach instead of having a hidden agenda, which some people sense when a manager opens with, “I have some feedback for you.”

Dealing With Difficult Conversations
Eryn Kalish, a mediator in the San Francisco Bay area, said challenging conversations are mainly the result of an issue that was not tackled when it was small and has been allowed to grow over time, such as issues with attitudes or behaviors.

If they had been addressed when they first came up by having a direct conversation, the issues could have been defused early. But in many organizations, small things, especially those that seem to be sensitive, are allowed to go on until the situation becomes untenable for one party or the other. Further, there is a lot of history and tension connected to the issue.

When dealing with difficult conversations, it is important for managers to understand they are dealing with emotion as much as content. Kalish said she teaches that managers have to create a structure so both people involved in the conversation can freely express their side of the story. Managers should be able to:

• State concerns directly: Learn how to speak up in a way that doesn’t alienate others.

• Probe for more information to gain a deeper understanding.

• Engage others through whole-hearted listening, including listening with the intent of being influenced.

• Attend to body language. Be able to spot discrepancies between what is seen versus what is being said.

• Remain forward focused, but only when everybody is ready to move forward.

Each person needs to be allowed to tell his or her version of the story. Managers can’t begin to resolve an issue until both people have had a chance to explain what’s been happening from their point of view.

Build Strong Relationships Over Time
In March 2011, Nilofer Merchant, Harvard Business Review corporate director and founder and former CEO of Rubicon Consulting, said, “Culture trumps strategy, every time.” Part of that culture is the accumulated beliefs, values and behaviors that develop in an organization. She said, “a healthy culture allows us to produce something with each other, not in spite of each other. That is how a group of people generates something much bigger than the sum of the individuals involved.”

Blanchard’s leadership-profit chain research looked into the connections among leadership, employee work passion, customer devotion and organizational success and vitality. The research found that effective leadership — especially effective day-to-day management practices — is the key to create a high-engagement, high-performance work environment that wows customers and creates superior financial performance.

Another backbone of day-to-day leadership is effective performance management skills, including the ability to build trusting relationships, listen, deliver feedback effectively and manage emotionally charged conversations. Leaders at businesses everywhere need to identify and evaluate the dozens, hundreds or thousands of relationships that either help or hinder their organizations’ efforts to reach their goals. Closing the distance between managers and direct reports is one of the best ways to get started. Begin today.

Scott Blanchard is an executive vice president and principal of The Ken Blanchard Cos. and co-founder of Blanchard Certified. He can be reached at