In The Workplace

Our department head is a busy man and yet he finds time to talk with the employees. He’s always listening to our ideas, complaints, even mundane stories about family life. The trouble is that nothing would happen. It’s as if he was never there when we discussed the issues. Is our boss a good listener or the workers asking too much? — Pine Blossoms.

The saying goes that we should do something every day to make other people happy, even if it means leaving them alone. But that’s not possible in the workplace where everyone must consult all interested parties to come up with a consensual decision. We also expect management pronouncements to take shape in concrete action. Otherwise, all this talk about proactive communication is for nothing.

So let’s examine your concerns. What does it mean if the boss is physically present when the employees discuss their issues? Could it mean he has delegated resolving those employee concerns to the line supervisors? How soon can you expect the boss’s lieutenants to resolve the issue? What are those issues that you prefer to be resolved personally by the department head alone? And why?

Regrettably, few people understand the dynamism of the so-called chain of command. Now and then, people are excited to see prompt action, except that they must also understand how the hierarchy works and how it responds to the complexity of employee ideas or grievances.

Many employees expect too much from management. They want to be coached, guided, and energized so they can work hard enough to achieve mutually-agreeable corporate goals. That’s a fair expectation that must be reasonably reciprocated by management.

Theodore Woodward (1914-2005), a medical professor and researcher at the University of Maryland, told his students of an aphorism to guide them in diagnosing patients: “When you hear hoof beats behind you, think of horses and not zebras.” That’s because horses are more common than zebras.

That’s to tell aspiring doctors to seek out the most common and likeliest reasons for a given set of symptoms, rather than settle on an exotic explanation. With that as a preamble, let’s move on by diagnosing your communication issues with the following basic questions:

One, does your management initiate open discussion? This question is critical as most employees are too timid to initiate communication with management. Therefore, management must create a systematic program which everyone can use to ventilate their concerns, ideas, and complaints. It includes town hall meetings, birthday clubs, suggestion program, quality circles, or labor-management cooperation schemes, among others.

Two, does management have a timeline for resolving issues? Some dynamic organizations require their managers to solve employee (and customer) issues within one day. They call it as “the 24-hour rule.” If not solved, the unresolved issues automatically go up to the next level of management. It may be a tough rule, which is why sometimes there are accommodations to allow for resolution within two or three days, depending on the circumstances.

Three, does management ask probing, intelligent questions? The right questions must be asked for you to receive the right answers. If the questions are too broad and complex, more often than not, it could open the floodgates to ambiguity and misinterpretation. Management must be able to understand the issues by listening more and talking less. When a clarification is asked, it sets everyone on the path towards a friendly communication process.

Four, does management facilitate active discussion? Or does it monopolize the talking? Effective management should understand that for it to be respected and trusted by the workers, it must limit itself to asking questions and requesting other employees to participate. It must be conscious of the destructive effect of “groupthink,” in which workers become passive when their bosses talk.

Five, does management summarizes the issues or decisions? This can be done by recapitulating all discussions and capturing them in a one-page e-mail or via a bulletin board announcement. This ensures that all concerned are kept on the same page. When management discusses employee issues, it must be ready with the right answers or decisions as well so it does not create a back-and-forth situation.

Six, does management ensure face-to-face employee interaction? Having a physical, eyeball-to-eyeball set-up is ideal. However, during the pandemic, this can be done online. Note, however that management must be cognizant of certain professional rules when communicating online. It includes looking at the camera directly to simulate an eyeball-to-eyeball setting.

Last, does the human resource (HR) department monitor all employee issues? Is HR mandated to compile all complaints and how they’re being resolved by line leaders, supervisors and other managers? This is very important so best practices are emulated and lessons shared with other managers. It’s also good practice to monitor the issues in case there is a one-size-fits-all strategy for resolving them.

Management success or failure depends to a large extent on knowing all those issues at the earliest possible time. That way, trivial matters do not become major disasters. Further, the overall efficiency of the organization is improved if workers are focused on doing their jobs and to willingly contribute their energy and thoughts.

By and large, all supervisors and managers must be properly trained so they can effectively handle minor issues before they reach top management. Leadership training is essential so the time-consuming responsibility of managing the workers and their issues are addressed more promptly.

You don’t have much time to experiment on this. You don’t have all the time to commit those mistakes. Where practical and feasible, the burden of dealing with employees lies with line management and not the department head, who must handle bigger things.


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