The charm offensive — for managers
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What we can all learn about communication skills (Wang Zhao/Getty Images)

Subordinates will work harder and be more loyal to bosses who have good people skills

Beth Rivard has a job challenge which would send other managers running: the people who work for her would all rather be somewhere else.

Rivard runs the service dog training programme at the Washington Correctional Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington. Every few months she gets a new inmate in her programme, which provides dogs to people with disabilities and operates a boarding and grooming facility. New participants almost always walk in the door with a bad temper. They refuse to work peacefully with others. They just don’t want to be there.

“Many of the women have never had jobs before being in prison,” said Rivard, executive director of the Prison Pet Partnership. “They don’t know how to work on a team or communicate with each other.”

But slowly Rivard sees the inmates transform. They develop the ability to work together with the other 20 or so women in the programme. They also get exposure to volunteers and to people who come to the prison to adopt the dogs. After a few years, the women will be as chatty and friendly as your average office worker.

“There is often a dramatic difference by the end,” Rivard said.

These new people skills have allowed the women to hold down jobs in shelters or vets offices after leaving prison. Only 5% of the programme graduates have committed another crime — far less than the state average of 19%.

 Managers everywhere could learn something from the women in the pet programme. If these inmates, who have had almost no job experience or training with interpersonal skills, can go on to professional success, what on earth is holding back executives? Why can’t supervisors manage to work warmly, professionally and easily with others?

Subordinates will work harder and be more loyal to bosses who have a knack for warm relations with others, studies have shown. That can pay off big when you move up the corporate ladder or when you need to build a strong team, among other things.

Balancing act

But it’s not as simple as mastering the art of water cooler chitchat. Knowing when to be personable with an employee, and when to back away emotionally, makes all the difference.

At the most basic level, managers need to make sure employees know they care about them as individuals, said Dalton Kehoe, a senior scholar of communication studies at York University in Toronto. That could be as simple as asking about and remembering a bit about their personal lives and showing empathy when something from home is troubling them at work.

“True employee engagement is based on the fact that the boss will listen to what they have to say,” Kehoe said. “One of the indicators that you know me is that you empathise with me.”

This is true across all cultures, Kehoe said. The world over, employees desire a personal connection with their supervisors and will value their jobs more when they do.

Still, it is tricky to create authentic links with people without coming across as inauthentic or forced. Managers, who struggle with small talk, should try to ask lots of questions about something that interests a co-worker, said Heidi Brooks, senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut. You might not have watched the Breaking Bad season finale, but showing interest in your employee’s take on it can foster a connection.

The next step is a courageous one: ask a confidante for feedback about your interpersonal skills.

This person can help you figure out two important things. First, you need to gauge what people think of you in the workplace. If you’re not perceived the way you’d like, it’s time to change those perceptions.

“After you have increased your awareness of how people perceive you, now you have to decide: what is the impact you want on the workplace?” Brooks said. “This is the difficult part. It takes some skill to get better at getting better.”

For instance, maybe you’re seen as the office naysayer. In that case, you could work on offering positive feedback. If people see you as cold and distant, it could be time to show your employees that you care about their problems.

 Successful case study

Design firm Ideo illustrates and builds on this need to be social. The firm, which is a creator of everything from the first computer mouse to smartphone apps, has no formal command structure. Instead, teams are formed organically, and leaders rise to the top by working best with their colleagues. Promotions don’t come simply because employees are good engineers or designers — they happen because those professionals are good with people. It’s likely your office works with a clearer hierarchy, but the Ideo lesson is that people skills ought to be more of a priority for new and up-and-coming managers.

While good social skills can help managers create productive workplaces, those skills are equally important for low-ranking employees. Rivard recalls an inmate who entered the Prison Pet Partnership programme a few years ago. At first, the inmate wore dark sunglasses and spent most of the day in the corner, yelling at people who passed by. By the time of her prison release, the woman was coordinator of the volunteers. Now she works in a veterinarian’s office.

 “(The women) leave here having built up friendships and connections with the people they worked with,” Rivard said.”There’s nothing more valuable when they get out.”

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