HR Connection – Communication breakdown

hurts morale
Within the last six months we have doubled the size of our customer service department. We have done this by moving people from other departments into the department and by hiring from the outside. Although we expected a period of settling in, things have been rocky ever since the changes were initiated.
Part of the problem is the customer service manager. He is tough, demanding, and direct. The veterans within the department have learned to accept his approach, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy it.
To make a long story short, morale has been decreasing over the past few months. The CSRs have been struggling to adjust to all of the changes which have taken place. As HR manager, I’m hearing more and more complaints about their manager’s impersonal approach which is along the lines of, “Changes are taking place, live with them.”
Over the years (he’s been with us for eight years), we’ve been pleased with his overall performance, although we have encouraged him to be less critical of his people and “softer” in the way he interacts with them. Given what we are seeing within the department at the present time, we feel he must change his approach if we are to move the department forward. What are your thoughts on how we can help him do this?
If I read between the lines, what I am hearing you say is that the manager’s interpersonal expertise does not match his technical expertise. This is common, as many managers are promoted based on their job “know-how.” However, as you move up the chain-of-command, know-how only carries you so far. Skills involving the facilitation of the work of others and helping the team to work well together become increasingly important.
Although we are living and working in an information age, technology by itself is not enough. Technology only helps us stay informed. Strong communication and interpersonal skills are necessary to form appropriate connections with others.
Although communication skills are sometimes viewed as “fluffy” or hard to pin down, a 1990 study funded by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) and the U.S. Department of Labor identified oral communication as a vital skill and affirmed that job success is indeed linked to effective interpersonal skills. And, given that many organizations are re-examining their job requirements in light of behavioral competencies, it seems apparent that interpersonal skills are being taken more seriously.
Of course, part of the recent emphasis on interpersonal skills stems from general changes which are taking place in the way that work is conducted. In the past, it was employment for life, defined career tracks, hierarchical organizational structures, strict managerial supervision, a focus on performing single tasks, and little emphasis on acquiring new skills or knowledge.
Today, the world of work is one of frequent employment changes, personal responsibility for career development, flattened organizational structures, team work, process improvement and multiple tasks, and increasing emphasis on acquiring new knowledge and skills and lifelong learning.
Implicit in all of this, I believe, is that strong communication skills are necessary for survival in today’s business world. Communication is the process by which people share information about themselves, ideas, things, and tasks. It is the process by which meaning is created – understanding and accepting others and being understood and accepted by others. In essence, communication is like a revolving door because each person involved in the communication is responsible for the outcome.
Clearly, part of being an effective communicator is recognizing who your audience is. Each group of people brings with it a unique set of characteristics with many possible variations. Differences may exist in terms of work style, problem-solving style, education, work experience, personality type, and personal background (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity, lifestyle orientation, etc.). Good communicators use these differences to their advantage and to the advantage of the group.
In terms of your situation, you need to be helping the customer service manager and the CSRs communicate across their differences by encouraging openness, a willingness to share and learn. That needs to take place in an atmosphere of respect and trust, and with a focus on the project goal.
One way to get started is having each group members (including the manager) identify his/her interpersonal style. A number of behavioral inventories are available to assess individuals’ preferences. A typical inventory might focus on these domains:

  • People-oriented vs. Idea-oriented
  • Practical vs. Imaginative
  • Analytical vs. Emotional
  • Organized vs. Flexible
    Once each group member has determined his or her preference, time can be spent exploring common areas of strength and those which need to be modified or changed. For instance, the information from the survey may suggest that, indeed, your manager is very practical and organized and that he is not particularly imaginative or flexible.
    The objective information from the behavioral inventory can be used as a starting point to help him change his approach to interacting with others. He might develop some insights about the manner in which his behavior influences the way his direct reports respond to him. Doing a better job in self-reflection will help him to see that the present morale problem is not all “their fault.”
    Subsequently, with greater awareness of his “blind spot,” time can be spent working with him to develop his skills in the key areas which bridge differences, including listening, sharing information, and providing feedback.
    Of course, for these changes to take root, he must truly want to move in the prescribed direction. In the final analysis, becoming a better communicator means working hard to achieve all “A’s”:
    Awareness that we are all different. Active in sharing and learning about differences. Accepting of differences as beneficial. Appreciative of the skills and behaviors that can bridgedifferences.
    Let us know how things are progressing. We’re hopeful that his next “report card” shows some progress.
    HR Connection is provided by Daniel Schroeder, Ph.D., of Organization Development Consultants in Brookfield. Small Business Times readers who would like an HR issue addressed in this column can contact Schroeder at 827-1901, fax is 827-8383, or via e-mail at
    May 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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