Preventing Communication Fires: A Manager’s Guide To Setting Expectations


“If you come to me with a problem, bring me a solution,” a former colleague once said. But here’s the managerial conundrum: It’s not always easy to put out work-related communication fires. Preventing them is much easier. Once you find A-players in the talent pool, strong communication is the key to building rock-solid relationships, maximizing productivity and realizing employee happiness. Having a healthy back-and-forth is critical to every department, of course, but it’s a standout necessity for both the new hire onboarding process and retention. So, how do you find your groove?

Employee Engagement

Let’s imagine you’re about to onboard a fresh recruit. It’s make-or-break time, and it can set the tone for future work experiences. During this process, new hires are getting to know the team and vice versa. The most important thing to understand is that not everyone will have the same communication style. Making that happen would be like trying to boil the ocean. But if you can facilitate getting team members to understand each other — creating an environment that fosters implicit understanding — your efforts will most likely lead to success.

Most managers grasp the importance of establishing clear job descriptions and are quick to set goals and expectations out of the gate. If we stopped there, all a manager would need to guarantee solid internal communication would be a pretty PowerPoint that explicitly lays out the new hire’s role and responsibilities.

But that’s only half of the equation. Here’s the other: As a manager, you need to structure an ongoing conversation that yields meaningful mutual insights about appropriate styles of interpersonal communication. It’s on both you and your new hires to communicate your individual work styles and how to optimize engagement. This creates an effective management strategy for any given employee — and allows both parties to set unambiguous expectations for interactions.

Candor is essential for a healthy working relationship — and for any healthy relationship, for that matter. Of course, the ability to communicate clearly isn’t ingrained; it’s a skill. Some people feel uncomfortable or have difficulty articulating their needs. If that’s the problem, here’s the solution: Reach out to your own professional communication guru for guidance.

As my team grew, I leaned on the company’s HR consultant, Star Marcus, to set some rules of the road. Marcus focuses on eliminating the noise that arises from poor communications and creating a space where employees can really understand each other. She says, “It is about finding a groove together and setting up an environment for focus that enables employees to be more self-directed and self-motivated.” This, she says, is pertinent to driving superior business results.

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Since it is not reasonable to create a single formula, she advises managers to remain authentic to their own communication styles and focus on developing an implicit understanding of each other. She notes, “This will promote a calmness that enables trust, leading to improved productivity, greater innovation and a thriving organization.”

Professional Communication 101

Don’t have a guru handy? You can borrow tips from mine. Marcus speaks of three basic tenets of effective communication: being thoughtful, honest and considerate. Outside of that, she offers the following suggestions as you create communication guidelines for success.

1. Let them know how you operate. During the interview process, we get a good sense of how an employee operates, makes decisions, solves problems and resolves conflicts. Now think about how much more productive your employees would be on day one if they knew the same about you.

2. Be intentional with every conversation. Think about how you approach your everyday work by clearly acknowledging what you are doing and why.

3. Make sure your employees know your quirks and pet peeves.

Don’t know where to begin? Here are some starting points:

What is your communication style?

Maybe it’s by phone, email or in person. You might want to reframe this question in terms of company culture.

How do you like to be updated about assignments? How much detail do you want?

Your answer might be: Only material updates, please! Or: I want to know every little detail — at least for now.

What’s your personal work or management style?

As in, “I need 30 minutes in the morning to get my coffee, go through emails and organize my day before being approached with a non-urgent issue.”

What are your values and goals?

This is where you specify that you value results over activity, or that you appreciate daily face time and it’s critical to set time aside for one-on-one meetings.

What are your priorities?

Give absolute clarity. For example, you might be focused on ensuring ROI or increasing revenue.

How you like to hear negative feedback?

This can be tough. I frequently remind my team that I welcome their feedback, both positive and negative. But complaining is self-defeating, and there’s a big difference between being problem-focused and solution-focused. I prefer to consume information that is seeking the high ground, so I encourage employees to shift away from stating problems and toward asking for solutions — or, even better, offering their own. And if steam absolutely has to be blown off, make it happen in private.

The Wrap-Up

Don’t expect that all these answers will emerge from one conversation. Timing may vary. But the earlier the better, so start asking during the interview process, then during onboarding and continue throughout an employee’s tenure. And while I’m writing from a manager’s perspective, these questions are multidirectional. They apply manager to employee, employee to manager and peer to peer.

Most of us spend the majority of our days at work. Therefore, work relationships are some of our most valuable. Investing time in getting it right out of the gate will be worth your while — because once people are in a workspace where they feel trust, they will be enabled to focus on what leads to ultimate success.