The Supervisor as Communicator

Communication between supervisors and their employees is often lacking. This assessment can help to gain insights regarding workplace communication.

If, as a supervisor, you have chosen to be effective when interacting with your employees, communication is the most important method for success. Being a people person is not the sole answer to being a good supervisor; however, being a good communicator is.

Of course, because you already know how to speak and how to write, you already are a communicator. However, how often you choose to communicate with your employees, as well as how effective the method of communication you choose may be, are important decisions you must make. 

The National Communication Association assessed how effective communication is in the workplace, with the following results:

  • Sixty-nine percent of employees are comfortable talking with co-workers.
  • Fifty-seven percent of employees are comfortable talking with their boss.
  • Forty-two percent of employees think their bosses are effective communicators.

Based on these percentage values, it is easy to see that these are not great marks for supervisory communication. How many of those 43% of employees who do not feel comfortable talking with their boss work may for you? How well do the employees you supervise rate you as a communicator? Is there an area of communication with your employees that you may need to work on? 

Assess What Kind of Communicator You Are

Performing a simple assessment of how your employees view communication at your workplace can be helpful for identifying ways to improve workplace communication. Such an assessment of the communication in a workplace relationship allows participants to gain an understanding of everyone’s perspectives and experiences.

It can also be a useful tool to improve communication or to deal with workplace conflict. A communication assessment’s main purpose is to give everyone who is in a communication relationship an opportunity to express their beliefs about the effectiveness of their communication. 

I have used the assessment provided in this article on many occasions where there have been conflicts in the workplace or as a way to build more powerful communication in long established relationships.

This assessment is intended to be a simple way to gain an understanding of the current beliefs of the participants about how effective communication is in the workplace. It does not pretend to be a scientific survey; instead, it is a quick way to find out how the participants perceive the effectiveness of communication.

Whether there are conflicts or not, this assessment can be helpful in giving all participants an insight into how communication is looked at by all participants. It also is a first step for beginning the process of developing ways to create more effective communication.

Two Phases of the Assessment

There are two phases to this assessment: The first phase is the rating each participant provides for the effectiveness of communication. The second phase is discussing the results of the assessment, including why various participants rated communication the way they did.

How these two phases are conducted is important. In a highly conflicted workplace, employees are frequently reluctant to confront their manager with how they feel about how things are going in the workplace for fear of reprisal. 

One approach for obtaining the ratings is to have each participant place their rating on a piece of paper without disclosing their name. These ratings are then given to the facilitator, who places them on the chart used to tabulate the ratings. This allows anonymity for the rater.

Another approach is to have each participant verbally relate their rating. The vast majority of participants in a communication assessment will willingly give their ratings verbally as well as fully participate in a discussion of the results. However, in some rare circumstances, the first approach may be preferable to the participants. 

Ground Rules for the Assessment

Establishing ground rules for the assessment can help participants to feel more secure when sharing their opinions. Although the assessment is intended to deal with improving communication, it is frequently the case that other issues are discussed as part of the assessment process. Some of these issues may be difficult for employees to discuss. Ground rules should therefore be established and agreed upon before beginning the assessment. The supervisor and/or facilitator should explain the following ground rules:

  • The purpose of the assessment is to improve the communication in the workplace. 
  • In determining your rating, the participants should use their overall viewpoint on the effectiveness of workplace communication.
  • All participants should feel free to speak candidly and honestly at all times.
  • The normal rules of courtesy and civility will be maintained. This includes, but is not limited to, refraining from interrupting someone who is speaking and being respectful of one other.
  • Ask if there are any other ground rules that need to be added.

The Assessment

The assessment is a simple five-step process that can be completed in 30–45 minutes, depending on the number of participants in the assessment:

  1. Explain the ground rules to help participants feel comfortable as well as to provide structure for the discussion. At the same time, in view of all the participants, display the assessment rating scale (described below) on a flipchart or white board.
  2. Ask participants to reflect on the systems and processes currently used to communicate with one another. Participants should silently rate how effective they believe communication is in the workplace on a 1–10 scale, with 1 indicating extremely poor communication, and 10 indicating extremely good communication. Participants are asked either to write their rating on a piece of paper and give it to the supervisor/facilitator or one-by-one announce their rating. As the ratings are given by the participants, the supervisor/facilitator will place a mark on the chart where the rating fits. As an example, if the rating is a 3, then the supervisor/facilitator will place a mark on the chart approximately where a rating of 3 would fit. Participants should not explain the reasoning behind their rating at this time. 
  3. When all participants have placed a mark on the assessment chart, ask each one to explain their rating. This can lead to considerable discussion about workplace issues not strictly related to communication. The supervisor/facilitator should be prepared to facilitate this discussion. 
  4. After each participant has answered, ask for suggestions for actions that can be taken to improve communication.
  5. Formulate a plan of action to implement the suggested actions that can be taken. 

As many know, today’s workplace is not always an office where everyone works together. Today, it is just as likely for an employee to work in their home many miles from their duty station. In this work arrangement, an employee’s interaction with their boss and fellow employees is usually by telephone or email. Telework or remote work, which is synonymous with the term “telecommute,” is when employees perform their job functions from locations outside of a traditional office environment. Increasingly more work is being done by employees who telework. This makes communication even more important.

Communication is a Two-Way Street

Communication in a supervisor-employee relationship should always be a two-way street, and both the supervisor and the employee have responsibilities to communicate. The employee must understand that they have as much responsibility to communicate with the supervisor as the supervisor has to communicate to the employee. In return, the supervisor must encourage employees to communicate as well as to provide the means and processes for their communication.

Within a normal supervisor-employee relationship, the supervisor must be prepared to effectively communicate to the employee the following:

  • Directions about what work is to be performed and how
  • Expectations about how much and when work is to be completed, and to what standards 
  • Corrections for the employee’s performance and conduct 

Similarly, within a normal supervisor-employee relationship, an employee must be able to communicate the following:

  • When directions are not understood, or certain tasks cannot be performed
  • When expectations are not understood, or cannot be met
  • When personal or other problems affect performance or conduct

It is unfortunate, however, that in some supervisor-employee relationships, the only time communication takes place is when it is absolutely required as part of a performance or disciplinary process. For this reason, each employee and supervisor should ask themselves how much of their communication actually takes place outside of these formal processes. While these processes usually specify the minimal communication, as well as the requirements expected of supervisors and employees, it is also often the case that these minimal requirements are not even being met.

Communication Between Supervisors and Managers

While much time is often spent focusing on supervisor-employee communication, all too frequently, an important relationship is overlooked: communication between supervisors and managers.

Consider, for a moment, how well do supervisors and managers communicate with each other? Much of what is said about communication between supervisors and employees can also apply to the supervisor-manager relationship. It is just as important that the supervisor-manager relationship have effective communication and trust as it is for the supervisor and employee relationship.

As it happens, in many organizations, improving this key relationship is too often overlooked.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.