Harvard Business Review recently sponsored an Interact/Harris Poll of around 1,000 U.S. employees that asked them to rank their top complaints about leadership in their organizations. The results revealed a stunning lack of emotional intelligence among senior leaders and management, and show the importance of fundamental communication skills when it comes to engaging employees. The top employee complaints were ranked as follows:

  1. Not recognizing employee achievements
  2. Not giving clear directions
  3. Not having time to meet with employees
  4. Refusing to talk to subordinates
  5. Taking credit for others’ ideas
  6. Not offering constructive criticism
  7. Not knowing employees’ names
  8. Refusing to talk to people on the phone/in person
  9. Not asking about employees’ lives outside of work

Troubling Trends

More than half (63 percent) of all employees surveyed agreed that not being recognized for achievements was the most pressing concern. This is troubling considering that almost 90 percent of organizations have recognition programs in place. Equally troubling is the long list of communication failures that follow – easy ones too, like giving clear directions and knowing employees’ names. It is simply an unacceptable and unsustainable environment to cultivate if companies are truly serious about employee engagement.

Quick Tips

Here are some basic communication tips that all managers should brush up on, and can go a long way toward mitigating all of the above complaints:

Practice small talk – Small talk happens every day and is usually how we connect with each other and start conversations, making it an essential skill to building interpersonal relationships. However, not all of us are very good at or even enjoy small talk. That’s where the FORD acronym can help – it stands for Family, Occupation, Recreation, and Dreams. Think of a few questions in each category, and before you know it you’ll be the king of the water cooler.

Ask questions and repeat – Don’t want to sound too prepared for off-the-cuff conversations? Another simple strategy for connecting with others is to remember to ask questions and repeat the last few words of what is said to you. Repeating a person’s last few words shows you’re interested, keeps you in the conversation, and can help clarify speech. Stir up questions and engage the answers. Being interested is always more effective than trying to be interesting.

Never forget a name – Not knowing your employees’ names is an unforgivable engagement sin. But some people are just better at remembering faces. Here’s an easy way to boost your recall: when you first meet someone, be sure to repeat their name at least twice after they introduce themselves – “Chris? Nice to meet you, Chris.” The repetition helps your brain connect the face to the name better, creating a more indelible memory of the person. If someone has a long or hard-to-pronounce name that you just can’t keep in your head, try leading with “How do you pronounce your name again?” to avoid any social faux pas.

Give timely recognition – Whenever you see an opportunity to recognize an employee for an achievement, don’t put it off – seize the moment and strike while the iron is hot. Praise given weeks or months after the fact just doesn’t have the same glow or impact that immediate recognition brings. Recognizing employees in the moment shows that you’re paying attention, that you care about individual achievements, and it encourages a culture of appreciation among colleagues.

Tailor messages to your audience – Some of your people are introverts, some are extroverts, some are responsive to small talk, and others prefer to just be listened to in a long stretch. Night owls and early birds are energetic and outgoing at different times of the day. Younger employees are used to communicating in different ways and prefer more daily feedback than their counterparts. Being sensitive to the quirks of your audience and adapting your message to suit them is a crucial aspect of engagement, and communications in general.

Keep messages brief and clear – We often get too wordy in emails and end up losing fidelity in conversations. Here’s another acronym you can follow that will help you clearly and succinctly deliver instructions to your staff every time out – BRIEF. It works like this [via Fast Company]:

  • (B) Background – Provide quick context for the request/update – where is this coming from?
  • (R) Reason – Explain why you’re speaking – why should your audience pay attention?
  • (I) Information – Provide two to three key nuggets of information you want to share – what’s it all about in a nutshell?
  • (E) End – End the conversation by telling your staff what the next steps are – what can everyone expect?
  • (F) Follow-up – Anticipate any questions that may be asked and prepare your answers – how can I clarify this better for you?

We Are All Human

What it all comes down to is treating employees like human beings, with all the respect, deference, and politeness that implies. It’s maddening that such a simple and relatable concept is so far afield in the workplace of 2015. But it’s also reassuring to know it can be easily avoided with a bit of thought and preparation.