Steve Pham

T.S. Eliot once wrote, “April is the cruelest month.” For me, April’s approach is always accompanied by a tiny hum of anxiety. There’s the taxman to pay, true, but for our company, April is the time we do our annual employee reviews. While I wasn’t expecting any bad news, I was still a little nervous. Getting feedback from your boss is always cause for anxiety when you care passionately about your job. Was I doing everything possible to fulfill my duties? Was I serving our readers well? Was I a good manager?

That last question is one I’d been thinking a lot about lately. Managers are the linchpins of every successful business. After all, they’re credited as being the most influential factor in employee retention — people leave managers, not companies. This becomes doubly important for our industry as we continue to struggle with skilled labor shortages in a year of projected growth.

As I mentioned in my last column, a full two-thirds of the American workforce are either disengaged or “actively disengaged” at work. It follows, then, that there must be a lot of crappy managers out there.

So if you’re a manager, how can you be a better one?

There are many, many tenets to good management. It seems half the books in a bookstore’s business section focus on this topic alone. But there’s one aspect that I think is absolutely critical: communication.

How you communicate with your employees is of the utmost importance. Why? Well, think back to an experience with a good manager (hopefully, you’ve had one of those in your past). You likely had a positive relationship or connection with them. How was that connection, or rapport, built? Through continued communication over time, which establishes trust. And we know that trust leads to engagement, which then, of course, leads to productivity.

A key part of what managers do is to provide employees with feedback. I spoke with a long-time friend who’s had a successful career managing many different teams. She stressed the importance of framing feedback in a positive way. Here are a few suggestions:

• Don’t use the “F” word. In this case, the offending word is “fail.” It’s a word that can only be applied in the past tense, which shuts down communication and offers no opportunity for improvement.

• Instead, use phrases such as, “You’re not there yet.” This is an encouraging, forward-facing affirmation of your faith in their ability to improve. The implied, “but you will be,” indicates that you’re invested in their success and will be there to support them.

• Answer the “why” whenever possible. When people understand the underlying reasons or principles behind performing certain processes or tasks, it’s easier to accept and, ultimately, take ownership of.

What all of the above really seeks to do is offer employees a larger sense of fulfillment in the work they perform. If, as I said earlier, managers are the linchpins, then employees are the wheels that propel companies to success. Communicating in this positive way lets them know their efforts are appreciated, and that you are there to help them succeed.

As for me, it turns out I had no need to worry. I wound up having a wonderful discussion with my boss about my role with the company, which had the effect of energizing and focusing my direction for the rest of the year. It seems I lucked out with a good manager.