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Lead Your Team Managing

Smart Ways to Improve Communication for Better Work Relationships

Smart Ways to Improve Communication for Better Work Relationships
Credit: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

Work relationships are an important part of your career, and one of the most critical is the relationship between a boss and an employee. Tension between you and your direct supervisor can have a devastating impact on your job satisfaction and career trajectory.

Sandy Mazur, division president of staffing services provider Spherion, said certain workplace policies — and differing expectations around them — can lead to a disconnected, fractured relationship between employees and their managers.

"This year's (Spherion) Emerging Workforce Study found that despite workers' demands for greater flexibility and work-life balance, employers are cutting formal work-life balance programs. When it comes to retention, bosses believe the management climate ... and the company's culture are most important, (but) workers believe financial compensation, benefits and earnings growth are most important for retention."  

But it's not just policies that can cause a rift between employers and employees. Rosalinda Oropeza Randall, etiquette expert and author of "Don't Burp in the Boardroom: Your Guide to Handling Uncommonly Common Workplace Dilemmas" (Familius, 2014), said that personality clashes, poor management style, and a general lack of respect or understanding can also hurt the relationship between workers and their supervisors.

"When employees feel underappreciated, undervalued or dismissed, or oppose the way the boss ... runs the department, it can lead to disconnection and apathy," Oropeza Randall told Business News Daily. "It's poison to the workplace."

For both employees and leaders, improving relationships begins with addressing the way you communicate with each other. Bill Peppler, managing partner of staffing firm Kavaliro, encouraged employees to address issues with their bosses and co-workers in a professional and respectful manner.

"Have a solution to the perceived problem, which can be much more proactive than something that may be set up as a complaining session," Peppler said.

For when you do speak with your boss, Oropeza Randall reminded employees to use "I"-focused phrases, instead of "you" or "they," to avoid pointing fingers. For example, "I am concerned that ..." or "I feel this way when ..." can be much more effective and professional-sounding than "They made me feel ...," which tends to sound like you're trying to shift the blame, Oropeza Randall said.

"Be prepared to back up your concerns. Show that you have done what you could to rectify the problem yourself," she added.

If an employee has a problem with you or your management style, he or she may not feel comfortable enough to bring it up with you directly — at least not right away. When they do finally approach you about an issue, it's your responsibility to do something about it.

"Oftentimes, (bosses) don't know or aren't in touch with issues that employees may experience," Mazur said. "So, once an employee approaches his or her boss to address a concern or an issue, the onus is on the boss to resolve the issue as best as they can."

Mazur suggests providing an honest answer, finding a suitable compromise or implementing a change for that employee.

It's important to truly listen and be patient and not dismiss it as complaining. The issues they're bringing up to you are usually valid, Oropeza Randall said. She also noted that bosses should make a point to ask their staff for regular feedback.

"Don't forget to ask for their opinion once in a while — they are your eyes and ears on the ground, and you can bet that they have a pretty good idea of what's going on. They can help you."

It's not solely the boss's responsibility to fix workplace relationship problems. According to a Headyway Capital and DesignTAXI infographic, employees can improve communications by avoiding the following 12 phrases when speaking to bosses and co-workers:

1. That's not my problem. It's easy to dismiss responsibilities that aren't initially yours or things that aren't "your problem." Be a team player by suggesting your boss speaks to someone else who can better handle the situation.

2. We've always done it that way. History and tradition have their place, and there is value in experience. However, though you may have good intentions when saying this to a boss or supervisor, you come off as inflexible and stuck in your ways. If you're hard-pressed to understand why you need to change, ask your boss or colleague to explain the benefits of doing it their way.

3. There's nothing I can do. It's frustrating when you've exhausted all possibilities for a problem. Adopting a can-do attitude will help you and your team go a lot further. Instead of saying this, ask your boss for help with other opportunities.

4. This will only take a minute. Tasks rarely take a minute to complete. When you have a demanding colleague, you want to reassure them, but this can mean rushed or incomplete work. Get back to your co-worker or boss with a more realistic time frame.

5. That makes no sense. Problem-solving comes with its challenges and can be difficult to decipher at first. Instead of appearing negative, take time to recognize what the person is saying and create a discussion.

6. You're wrong. If you're passionate about the subject, the phrase can slip out. Your delivery can come off as rude and rattle some cages. Approach the topic more diplomatically by laying out why you disagree and asking for feedback.

7. I'm sorry, but … Any apology followed by a "but" immediately negates the apology itself. Next time, take responsibility for the mistake and note you will correct it in the future.

8. I just assumed that … Mistakes are easy to make and stem from miscommunication. Regardless, it's best you don't express assumption. Instead, ask for clarification on what needs to be done.

9. I did my best. You're always expected to do your best; however, sometimes it doesn’t meet expectations. Speak with your boss and ask what could be done differently next time.

10. You should have … Pointing out mistakes when you're frustrated is the easy route, but passing the blame to someone else and finding fault within their work isn’t the best approach. Try to be constructive and instead say, "It didn't work; here's what I recommend next time."

11. I may be wrong, but … You may have an idea but lack confidence and be worried others will dismiss what you say. Avoid discounting yourself and tell people you have an idea instead.

12. I haven't had time. There are never enough hours in a day, and conflicting priorities are a concern for most people. Be proactive and realistic with your timeline: "I can get this done by …"

If the issues in your workplace go beyond simply how you speak to one another, the best course of action is to face the problem head-on. Mazur said employees and bosses should aim to develop a strong relationship rooted in mutual trust and respect.

"If there's a concerted effort from both parties to invest in and nurture the relationship, then both employees and bosses are more likely to be engaged and in sync with each other's goals, objectives and expectations," she said. "A solid relationship between boss and employee also pays long-term dividends for the employer. Happy employees tend to be more engaged, motivated and productive."

Additional reporting by Nicole Taylor. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Shannon Gausepohl

Shannon Gausepohl graduated from Rowan University in 2012 with a degree in journalism. She has worked at a newspaper and in the public relations field, and is currently a staff writer at Business News Daily. Shannon is a zealous bookworm, has her blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, and loves her Blue Heeler mix, Tucker.