Stop negative management talk before it damages your staff

Far too many IT managers fall into the trap of using negative words or a mean-spirited tone to communicate with their staffs. This type of poor communication can negatively affect your entire staff and their productivity--not to mention your career.

"Did there not cross your mind some thought of the physical power of words? Is not every word an impulse on the air?"

—Edgar Allen Poe, 1850

IT managers would do well to heed Poe's quote, as they need to choose their words carefully when managing and supervising teams. If they don't, they'll soon discover they're overseeing their own management horror scenario—a staff of grumbling, resentful underachievers—and not doing much for their own careers as well.

How words can hurt
"Words can be like weapons—they can hurt sometimes," said Joan Lloyd, founder of Joan Lloyd & Associates, a Milwaukee-based management consulting and training firm. While proper management communication is obviously an issue for every company, the IT employment segment is unique, as IT workers are highly susceptible to verbal abuse, explained Lloyd.

"First of all, they're often on a site out of their department, so they're outsiders within their own company and the clock is always ticking." An IT professional, she noted, usually has one unhappy, frustrated client/user on one side to service and also has to placate a manager who's constantly pressing him or her to get some task completed.

The most harmful things IT managers say to their staff often drive straight to the heart of two personal issues: incompetence and self-esteem.

Lloyd provided examples of particularly harmful statements IT managers can make to staff:
  • "Why can't you get it done?"
    "Questions like this one directly imply that 'you' certainly aren't smart enough to do the job at hand,'" said Lloyd.
  • "When I was in your job, I handled everything thrown at me."
    "This one implies that 'I was smarter than you—you must be some kind of dolt,'" said Lloyd.
  • "Just try to get along. What's your problem anyway?"
    "This one is usually said when there's some kind of conflict with a client, and it's extremely patronizing," said Lloyd.

"Anytime a manager says something that implies, either overtly or subtly, that the person lacks competence or the person lacks integrity, that person will feel the sting," said Lloyd.

The ensuing ramifications can be huge, she added, and can travel like a virus across the consciousness of an entire enterprise.

"After the burn, IT people feel the last thing they want to do is ask for more work or give extra effort. They begin to resent the boss's directive, as opposed to being a partner with the boss," said Lloyd.

Negative management has consequences
A recent survey by Kelly L. Zellars et al. revealed that workers who feel abused are more likely to give it back in spades—most likely by bad-mouthing the supervisor and the company. They'll then begin to avoid helping newcomers learn the ropes, stop being team players, and settle into work to do the minimum. They'll also begin complaining about minor frustrations that they never bothered about before.

And the power of words—specifically negative ones—doesn't just hurt or hinder one staffer. The employee's reaction to the negative management feedback can easily turn other staffers' attitudes from good to bad.

"After [an IT staffer] gets a comment like that—he or she will turn to cohorts and tell them, and the cohorts will say 'Oh my god, I can't believe he said that!' And suddenly you've poisoned the well," explained Lloyd. "And when you've brought about that kind of disconnect with your workers, you've really got problems. You'll even see a mobilization against the manager," she said, adding that she's seen a staff mutiny result in some cases.

TechRepublic members also have seen firsthand how a manager's words, and verbal tone, can impact an IT department, and are currently sharing stories on the topic in a site discussion.

For example, member Maecuff wrote that, "My former boss once told me that his boss needed a new report in four days. My boss told me I had until the following morning to complete the project because delivering it early would make him look good. 'I don't care if you have to sit at that desk until tomorrow morning, it WILL be finished!' he told me." Such a poorly thought out, negative reward strategy prompted TechRepublic member, Mmbarreca, to wonder about "How some people not only become managers but somehow keep the job."

According to Lloyd, it's the result of how the industry itself has grown. "Sheer lack of interpersonal savvy is often at the heart of it. A lot of technical people have been promoted into managerial jobs, but they don't necessarily have people or leadership skills. They have good technical skills or client skills—but that doesn't always translate into good managerial skills," Lloyd said.

And many of today's managers are also under a lot of pressure from above, which could be a level of management that's suffering from the same issues.

That's why tech management is a position "not for the weak of heart," Lloyd said, adding that "managing today is very difficult, especially when you have a stable of thoroughbreds who are very demanding, very smart, and very savvy, and you also have clients who expect everything to be done last week."

How to stop alienating your staff
Like most human behaviors, verbal communication can be improved, so IT managers who are more negative than positive can change. Lloyd says it all starts by having a strong feeling of empathy.

"Put yourself into the shoes of your staff, and realize they're alone out there," Lloyd said. She offered up several examples of how IT managers can verbalize needs in certain situations:
  • "I know that the client is a royal pain in the butt. I appreciate that, despite their pressure on you, you hung in there and fixed it calmly."
    Just that comment alone will go a long way toward making a hideous client experience bearable, said Lloyd.
  • "What can I do to help? Who can I call for you? What other resources can I give you?"
    Managers must ask questions like these to illustrate that they are concerned. "Take the client off their backs, and let your staff do what they do best—fixing the problem," explained Lloyd.
  • That was really tough. You put in long hours, which must've been hard on your family. Here's a gift certificate for a nice restaurant to take your family out for dinner."
    Appreciative behavior can pay off, because "little things like that go a long way" in management, said Lloyd.

Assess your level of negative communication
Lloyd advises managers to study up on popular leadership books to get more insight on verbal approaches and to try to seek out a good mentor within the organization. "Find someone who has a great set of people skills to pair up with, and use that person as an informal coach to bounce ideas off of," Lloyd said.

A good simple trick that managers can use is to consistently ask staffers three simple questions to assess communication and to avoid negativity from creeping into the mix:
  • What can I do more of?
  • What should I do less of?
  • What should I keep doing the same?

Lloyd said that the "less of" question is where a manager will get the most relevant (and pointed) comments about his or her communications skills, but, she warns, "Don't retaliate if the comments are negative. You should thank them, apologize if necessary, and give them permission to inform you about it the next time the situation arises."

In the end, however, all this insight advice will likely fall on some IT manager's deaf ears. The survey above noted that abusive bosses rarely realize they're the source of problems. Instead, they tend to blame the employees for being lazy, unmotivated, or incompetent.

If that's the case, will such an IT manager ever truly be effective at leading his staff? As Edgar Allen Poe's infamous raven crowed so hauntingly: "Nevermore!"