About geraldgraham

Professor, author and management consultant.

The Grapevine or Immediate Supervisor as Sources of Information?

“We’ve surveyed our employees,” a manager said, “and asked them what they think their managers could do better.”

“Let me guess their Number One suggestion,” I responded.


“I’m guessing your employees wanted managers to be better communicators.”

“How did you know?”

“Communication is always Number One.”

Employees want to know anything and everything that may impact their work life, and they want to know it the instant management knows it.  However, employees’ desired sources of information are sometimes different from their actual sources. 

Research by professors Snyder and Morris in their article, “Organizational Communication and Performance,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, revealed that employees’ primary sources of information were immediate supervisor, the grapevine, company policies and small group meetings.

When asked how they prefer to get information, employees responded:  immediate supervisor, small group meetings, top executives and company policies.  The grapevine and social media were their least preferred sources.

Effective leaders realize that they never NOT communicate.  Failure to fully reveal changes in plans, strategies and processes spur the creation of lightening fast rumor mills.  Effective leaders spend considerable time in 1:1 and small group meetings communicating face-to-face.

Individuals, Not Groups, Make Key Decisions

A manager said to me, “I am responsible for selecting new products to sell in our retail outlets.  Since there are many options and it is hard to predict which items will sell best, I ask my team members for their input.” 

“Do you usually get agreement on which product lines to buy?” I asked.

“Almost never do we get strong agreements.  In fact, sometimes our meetings drag on much longer than I like as members become strongly invested in debating their opinions.”

“Then, how do you decide?”

“Eventually, I just have to make the call.”

“Do your team members accept your decisions?”

“For the most part.  I tell them upfront I want to hear their opinions; but since I will be accountable, I want to reserve the right to make the final decision.”

Although we hear a lot about participative decision making, most important decisions are made by individuals.  Of course, wise leaders seek counsel from experts and those responsible for executing decisions.  Both experts and practitioners, because they have differing experiences and values, seldom agree completely on complex decisions.

A good model is to approach your team with a suggested, tentative decision; seek their feedback and select options that improve the decision.    

Intense Discussions Benefit from Careful Wording

Although frowns, gestures, and tone make up much of the meaning in intense face-to-face communications, words still matter.  Professor Jim Detert, in his book Choosing Courage, identifies phrases that are more likely to inflame rather calm intense communications.  

Below, I have paired phrases to consider avoiding with other ways of stating similar expressions.

Avoid:  Clearly, you did not read my report on this issue.

Better:  I understand you have a different opinion.  May I summarize the information I used to support my view?

Avoid:  I would never make such a statement.

Better:  That sounds unlike something I might say.  My intention was to . . .

Avoid:  You should be more specific in your status reports.

Better:  I feel more confident in my understanding when your status reports include dates and numbers.

Avoid:  Your continued negligence in responding to customer inquiries really makes me angry.

Better:  I think our mission is better served when customers receive timely responses.

Avoid:  Your interpretation is wrong and in clear violation of our policy.

Better:  My reading leads to a different interpretation, can you fill me in on what you base your view on?

In general, avoid phrases the other party might interpret as attacks and replace them with attempts to better understand.

Effective Leaders Water Where the Flowers Grow

Dennis puts off assignments and rushes to finish them at the last minute, often with errors. 

Dennis’ manager said, “I’ve spent a lot of time with Dennis.  He does well for awhile but always seems to slip back into his old habits.”

How much coaching does it take to cure Dennis’s missteps?  When should a manager realize that additional training and retraining is ineffective?

On rare occasions, low performers will blossom after many hours of coaching and mentoring; but face it, not every employee can be effectively coached.  Here is a reality check—you are more likely to hit three jackpot symbols on a slot machine than you are to change persistently, low performers into reliable, go-to team players. 

Why?  The cause of low performance is more likely a talent issue than a motivation or training issue.  Even the simplest tasks require some level of talent—knack, genetic disposition, gift—for reliable performance.  And you cannot train talent.

How do effective mentors know when to continue coaching and when to look at other options?  As the saying goes, “Water where the flowers grow.”  If employees show quick and sticking improvements, carry on.  If not, continued coaching equals frustration for both parties.

“Manage Them Up or Manage Them Out

“How was your week?” I asked a manager.

“Not so good.”

“Were you dealing with demanding customers?”

“No.  But I spent a lot of time with three of my employees who either made mistakes, missed deadlines, irritated co-workers, wasted effort on low-priority tasks or all of the above.” 

In surveys, I’ve asked hundreds of managers who have recommended termination of an employee if, after reflection, they thought it was a mistake. Almost one hundred percent say their recommendation to terminate was sound, even after months or years have passed.

My observation suggests that we seldom terminate nonperformers too early, but we frequently allow them to linger too long.  Time is a leader’s most important asset, and time spent coaching, cajoling or coddling nonproductive team members is seldom a good investment.  And some studies show that marginal performers take almost twenty percent of their leaders’ time.

The old slogan of “manage employees up or manage them out” may sound harsh but is probably a good practice.  Of course, coach and train employees to get better (manage them up).  For those who perform below standard but do not improve, work with your HR partners to remove them (manage them out).

Avoid “Anger” When Responding to False Accusations

In a meeting, Johnathon lashed out at a Jose, “You had no authority to tell the customer the item was under warranty.  It clearly is not.  Your response made the customer mad.  Now, he is filing a complaint about me.”   

Jose’s face reddened and he angrily responded, “Don’t blame me for that.  I told the customer no such thing.  You were rude.  That’s why he is filing a complaint.”

Experiments by Michael Blanding, written in HBS Working Knowledge, suggest that anger makes a wrongly accused person look guilty.  While there may be reason to be upset when falsely accused, voice tone and nonverbal expressions are likely to carry more weight than facts. 

 Jose may have been more convincing if he had maintained his composure and responded in a calm voice with something like, “Johnathon, I see you are upset by the customer’s complaint.  Can you fill me in on the details?  My hope is to clarify the situation and resolve the customer’s issue.” 

Previous research has well documented the impact of voice tone and nonverbals on how others attach meaning to verbal expressions.  This appears to be particularly true when responding to false accusations. 

Avoid This Danger of Teamwork

Most of the CEO’s executive team seemed pretty charged up about the new, ambitious branding campaign. 

“Do you really think we can pull this off?” he asked his team.

There were many head nods, smiles and comments such as, “It’s a winner.”  “Very doable.”  “I wouldn’t want to be our competition.” 

At an informal gathering later, a colleague asked the chief marketing officer, “Do you really think the CEO’s plan will be effective?”

“Seriously, I have my doubts,” was his response.

“Why didn’t you say something in the meeting?

“I did not want to be seen as an anti-team player.” 

Psychologist Irvin Janis, long ago labeled the danger of stressing harmony among teams as “groupthink.”  In the interest of functioning as effective team members, some individual members falsely express their support for others’ ideas.  This reduces dissenting opinions and sometimes leads to bad decisions.

To avoid meandering into a groupthink culture, leaders can regularly:

  • honor disagreements,
  • aggressively seek contrary views,
  • designate a member to play the role of devil’s advocate, and
  • seek opinions of outside experts.

Additionally, leaders may separate evaluations and decision making.  That is, designate one meeting for evaluating options and a second meeting for making the decision.