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The following paper is an interview with a manager at a multinational retail firm. The interviewee’s official title is divisional vice president of human resources. The managerial climate of the firm at the time of the interview can be categorized as turbulent – senior management underwent a major shift the week before, and two days before the interview the CEO stepped down and a new CEO addressed the senior managers.
The firm itself loses money each quarter; the financial climate therefore remains uncertain, and many people fear lay-offs and downsizing.
Keywords: business communication, managerial communication, breakdown, strategies
Managerial Communication Breakdown
The following paper includes elements from an interview with a senior manager at a multinational retail firm. The interviewee’s official title is divisional vice president of human resources. The managerial climate of the firm at the time of the interview can be categorized as turbulent and stressful; senior management underwent a major shift the week before, and two days before the interview the CEO stepped down and a new CEO addressed the senior managers at a breakfast meeting.
No warning occurred prior to the CEO’s transition, and many senior managers experienced trepidation at the swiftness and secrecy surrounding the CEO’s exit. The feeling in the company, according to the interviewee, was “it’s a bad omen” (E. Kurtz, personal communication, June 25, 2011). The firm itself loses money each quarter; the financial climate therefore remains uncertain, and many people fear lay-offs and downsizing.
Breakdowns in Internal Politics
As explained above, the current climate of the retail company is beset with anxiety. According to the interviewee, “everyone is afraid. No one knows what is going on, since in recent weeks the C-suite has been like a revolving door. We’ve had hires and fires going on at a blistering pace, and since just about everyone in senior management is now new, the ones who didn’t leave in the first round are wondering when the axe will fall on them.
Communication wise this has created an atmosphere of mistrust; the internal politics can be summed up in three words: Trust no one. I also have the feeling that everyone is updating their resume and looking for a new job – there’s a real sense that the rats are fleeing the Titanic.
As a result no one is really focusing on the work at hand, which is to pull the company out of the lion’s mouth. Communication about the business itself is almost an afterthought. Everybody is just trying to find out what’s going on and if they will have a job next week” (E. Kurtz, personal communication, June 25, 2011).
The dearth of trust in the organization described herein speaks to what Casey, Miller & Johnson (1997) call “information deprivation… information deprivation will motivate survivors to engage in strategic information-seeking behaviors.
Survivors may seek to confirm rumors that the downsizing is only the first in a series of RIFs or ascertain if the organization is stable with a leaner staff. Information-seeking strategies are deliberate, conscious efforts to obtain information that vary in accordance to their overtness and the degree of specificity of desired information” (Casey, Miller & Johnson 1997).
According to the interviewee an effective strategy in recent days has been “active listening. I find that if I spend the first few minutes of the meeting listening to the fears and anxieties from my team, they settle down instantly and we return to our effective work mode.
In my experience when managers ignore the anxieties of their team it just doesn’t work; yes, these are irrational fears and nobody knows what will happen, however the simple act of listening in a thoughtful way without judgment seems to focus my team instantly” (E. Kurtz, personal communication, June 25, 2011).
Breakdowns in Decision Making
According to Winter, Neal & Waner (2001), “poor communication skills can bias group decision making” (Winter, Neal & Waner 2001). In the experience of the interviewee, decision making in the organization suffers at the present time simply because of “impatience. We just got a new CEO, yet everyone wants to know now what is happening now. The poor guy hasn’t even sat at his own desk yet.
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Decision making is rife with speculation and prediction – all the arm chair quarterbacks are out in full force trying to predict the new guy’s play – and I find that very few decisions have been made, aside from the major decision to exit the old CEO and bring in the new one” (E. Kurtz, personal communication, June 25, 2011).
The strategy that the interviewee employed at the time of the interview is “avoiding groupthink. When we are in a strategy meeting, I do not allow any speculation as to the current CEO’s plan.
Groupthink derails decision making almost instantly, and all it takes is one person to make some remark about what the CEO did in his previous role – how many people he fired, usually – and the whole team dissolves into panic mode. I steer us back to the task at hand – whatever decision needs to be made in the next hour – and I tend to be a firm taskmaster.
The strategy that works best for me is to not verbally engage the groupthink in any way; I simply restate the task, and lead the group back to the fold” (E. Kurtz, personal communication, June 25, 2011).
Breakdowns in Leadership
According to Winter, Neal & Waner (2001), “the more realistic the task, the more likely it is that the emergent leader will be from either sex…however, where participants have less stake in the outcome, men are slightly more likely to emerge as leaders.
Women take the leadership role more often in social situations, and men participate more and act as leader more often in task situations…even when a woman had taken the leadership role and performed most of the leadership tasks, if a man had contributed significantly, he was perceived as the leader” (Winter, Neal & Waner 2001).
In the current climate of the organization, leadership styles differ significantly, and according to the interviewee, some leaders deploy a masculine or authoritative style that “really isn’t flying for us at the moment. The old CEO had a tendency toward public rebuking of his direct reports. I’m not saying that’s why he left, but that had an effect on people, you know?
Telling someone they suck in public does not win hearts and minds. I think to his credit he felt like that tactic would motivate guys to make sure they did a better job, however in our case it backfired. No one felt safe to communicate for fear of being stripped naked in front of peers” (E. Kurtz, personal communication, June 25, 2011).
The communication strategy that the interviewee uses to handle performance issues among the members of her team is “personal and private. I take the individual aside and I make sure no one witnesses me doing this.
Then I explain to him or her that we are going to place him on a performance plan, if we are, or if I need to find out why certain tasks aren’t getting done, I ask the question one to one and then work with the team member to facilitate the task” (E. Kurtz, personal communication, June 25, 2011).
Casey, M.K., Miller, V.D. & Johnson, J.R. (1997). “Survivors’ information seeking following a reduction in workforce.” Communication Research, 24, (6), 755-777.
Kurtz, E. (2011, June 25). Personal communication.
Winter, J.K., Neal, J.C. & Waner, K. K. (2001). “How male, female, and mixed-gender groups regard interaction and leadership differences in the business communication course.” Business Communication Quarterly, 64 (3), 43-59.