Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Engaging in Communication Skills

The relationship economy and the communication skills crisis are placing greater demands on managers to become better mentors, coaches and managers of people.

As the skills shortage grows, corporates have to start looking inwards for a solution to their talent pipeline challenges and the role of the manager as coach, mentor and trainer has perhaps never been as important to business’ bottom line as it is now. Communication skills development might long have been an item on the management performance scorecard but the old approach of handing development candidates over to the training department is no longer going to deliver what businesses need in terms of skills. Managers are going to have to take a far more active, one-on-one role with staff members to ensure the development of a sustainable – and retain-able – talent pool.

But if they expect managers to deliver on this, businesses are going to need to invest more in their training as coaches and mentors. Which is not to say that managers suddenly need to become expert business coaches (after all, coaching and managing are quite different roles) but what they will need to learn are some essential tools to help them guide the learning and development of employees.

The problem arises from the fact that, generally speaking, managers are successful people who, thanks to something of a competitive edge over their peers, have made their way up the corporate ladder. As such, they’ve grown used to being the ‘smart kid’ in class, the one with all the answers and - sometimes by force of habit and sometimes because their ego compels them to do so - they literally cannot help themselves telling people what to do. It’s a trait that’s frequently applauded by their seniors because it ensures that the job gets done, and one that’s often appreciated by staff who thrive on being provided with clear, unambiguous instruction and direction.

The upshot is that a combination of internal inclination and external reinforcement make it very difficult for many managers to create a space in which they don’t provide the answers, but rather encourage employees to discover the answers for themselves. Because it is in doing so that people learn best; research shows that critical learning takes place not in being given the answer, but in coming to discover the answer for oneself. A good teacher is not one who instructs, but rather one who facilitates this kind of learning. Similarly a good manager is one who empowers staff to make decisions on their own and eventually be able to operate without needing a manager to tell them what to do.

A fundamental mindset shift is the first step towards learning how to have the kind of communication skills that facilitate real learning and development. Managers need to stop valuing being the font of knowledge and start valuing their ability to enable other people to find knowledge. By the same token organizations need to recognise that it’s a skill to be able to facilitate other people’s thinking and learning – and reward such skills through managers’ performance management scorecards.

The second step is to change the focus of learning. Traditionally, teachers, coaches, managers and trainers all tend to focus on getting people to behave in such a way so as to deliver a desired result. But such an approach fails to take into consideration the two stages that every person goes through before they act in order to produce a result. These two stages are thinking and feeling. If you can affect the way someone thinks about something, this will change the way they feel about it, which will necessarily have an impact on how they behave and, if you do it right, will help to deliver the result you are looking for.

Which brings us to the third step in facilitating learning – having the right kind of conversations. We find ourselves in a relationship economy and more than ever, a manager’s ability to make human connections with staff is critical. Not because it’s a warm and fuzzy nice-to-have – but because it helps to deliver the results that organizations need. Only when managers start talking to staff – and more importantly, listening to what they have to say in reply – will they begin to understand how staff think and feel about things. From there, the skill is to ask the right kind of probing, open-ended questions that bring staff round to a new way of thinking and feeling about their role. If carried out with the right amount of empathy, emotional intelligence and lack of hierarchical posturing, such conversations can prove to be a powerful catalyst in the empowerment of staff – and the ultimate delivery of a more skilled workforce that’s able to find solutions instead of waiting to be given them.