Whether it’s “quiet quitting” or what Microsoft’s chief people officer Kathleen Hogan recently called the “human energy crisis,” people are not showing up for work in the same way they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

As companies scramble to keep and engage employees, they are intensifying focus on culture. If your company is on the losing end of talent attraction and retention, then honing your culture is one lever you have to right the ship.

Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

Often, human resources (HR) take the lead on engagement and culture initiatives that reach across the organization. But senior leaders (including training leaders) are just as important… and, I’d argue, even more so.

Consider these recent studies. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) found that nearly nine in 10 workers (87%) indicated that their manager contributes to setting their work team environment, and  Gallup research showed that employees are 2.8 times likelier to be engaged when they regularly talk to their manager about their goals and successes.

Whether it’s a manager’s weekly cadence meeting or a senior leader’s department-wide strategy update, every interaction leaders have with their people is an opportunity to build culture and community.

Just How Out of Practice Are We?

Many leaders are out of practice when it comes to effective communication in the workplace.

Gallup research also found that only 26% of employees strongly agree that their manager’s feedback helps them do better work. It’s been reported that 57% of employees surveyed reported not being given clear direction and 69% of managers reported not being comfortable communicating with their employees in general.

In a remote work environment, it’s easy to fall into the old adage, “out of sight, out of mind.” But that’s a big business risk. “Out of mind” might become “out of company.” Here are five of the top mistakes leaders make, and how developing stronger communications skills can help.

Mistake 1: Discounting efforts to build trust

In a hybrid work environment, trust is essential. A recent Fast Company article reported that only one in three employees trust their leaders. Trust is a two-way street. “Managers must trust their team members to stay on task, and team members must trust that their managers have their best interests in mind when making decisions,” the article says.

Open, honest and transparent communications build trust. Leaders can share updates with employees, from strategic to mundane, including how their own behaviors are changing. Conversations that build one-on-one, personal connections can form the foundation of trust that leads to cohesive teams.

Employees want to be seen as people, first. Leaders can build in more recognition of people’s efforts, from collaboration on a current project to a work anniversary. When a team is aligned with their manager, then collaboration and higher performance are possible.

Mistake 2: Focusing on technology over individuals

When it comes to digital transformation, the challenges aren’t just technical; they’re about people. Successful transformation requires a culture that supports new ways of doing things, accepts risk and tolerates failure.

Leaders who regularly communicate the purpose of transformation actions reinforce the journey that the organization is on. As in most things, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Leaders put the changes in context by sharing the why behind the what and the how. To engage teams in the effort, a leader needs to tune into each individual. Speak to their priorities and concerns, and invite ongoing discussion.

Mistake 3: Avoiding constructive conflict

People who work together don’t always agree with or like one another. But conflict can spark innovation and creativity. Active listening skills and communication tools can acknowledge colleagues’ concerns or comments while reducing the desire to respond defensively.

Leaders in an unhealthy company culture often put people on the spot for their mistakes. In contrast, leaders who can deliver feedback with thought and consideration, without assigning blame, can lead to practical conversations and recommendations for improvement. Healthy conflict can lead to more productive teams, strong ideation and effective solutions.

To solicit constructive conflict, leaders can encourage team members to call out problems as they arise. Recognizing challenges, and collectively deciding on a shared solution, will help to ensure that everyone feels heard.

Mistake 4: Making little effort to invite and promote diverse voices

A healthy and inclusive company culture needs diversity of thought and experience. For many organizations, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are front and center. Leaders who embrace those initiatives and infuse them into all aspects of their work have an outsized impact on corporate culture.

For example, when leaders show interest in considering all perspectives and invite discussion, apprehensive employees who might not have offered their thoughts without being prompted feel more supported in bringing new ideas to the table.

Skillful communication sends the clear and unambiguous message that differences make the organization stronger.

Mistake 5: Spending too much time talking at people instead of truly listening.

Leaders need to find new ways to connect with their people. They must consciously shift their listening and thinking processes to become dramatically better listeners.

Too often, leaders get so focused on communicating their message that they don’t take the time to consider the state their audience is in. If employees are distracted, burned out or otherwise not engaged, they will not hear those messages. When leaders are good listeners, they can skillfully navigate conversations in a way that is mutually beneficial.

In remote work environments, people can’t see one another’s physical cues and that can easily lead to misunderstandings. What’s more, feedback in remote workplaces tends to become a scheduled event, where feedback is prepared and curated. By learning the skill of asking follow up questions, leaders are more likely to get authentic feedback.

In the new world of work, communications skills are an essential tool for fostering connection and community. Leaders who listen attentively and communicate authentically create teams where people want to work and contribute.

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