Talking to staff

LBS Head of Custom Programmes, Margi Gordon, investigates what people want to hear from those at the top.

‘Senior managers just don’t know how to talk to staff’ – HR directors at a recent event at London Business School, explained that this was one of their key concerns.

They said that, more often than not, senior managers are uncomfortable talking to employees and frequently make comments that are seen as banal or irrelevant. Our Head of Custom Programmes, Margi Gordon, investigates what people want to hear from those at the top.

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First of all staff look for a clear overall direction from their leaders. This helps them to prioritise and enables them to understand where they are headed. If innovation is on the agenda, a clear sense of direction helps them to judge if their ideas for new initiatives are on track.

Kotter said in 1996 that if you think you have communicated the vision, then you need to do it another ten times before people will hear it. That is still true today. What excites a CEO is rarely of interest to the majority of staff, unless described in terms that are relevant to them. We all want to know ‘how does this relate to me?’ This might be; making customers happy, delivering excellent service, providing the most innovative products, but rarely will it be making the shareholders more money.

Senior managers need to think about their audience and keep the message simple. Vince Covello who has spent his life researching how to deliver difficult messages, recommends three key messages, using no more than 27 words. If all vision statements were that clear, people would easily connect with them.

If people have a sense of worthwhile purpose and some clear boundaries, they can then be given the opportunity to work on their own initiative. A simple structure creates freedom to innovate - if people understand the why, they can usually work out the how.


People also want to know if their senior managers are interested in them. This was clearly demonstrated by a global study of 32,000 people by Towers Watson (2012). Staff want to have trust and confidence in senior leaders and to feel that they have a genuine interest in their well-being. This can be difficult to demonstrate if you never have any contact with people in the front line. Senior managers who ‘go back to the floor’ get an understanding of what is going on and can incorporate that in their regular communications.

One successful CEO regularly talks to people in all parts of his business and asks two simple questions: ‘What three things are going well?’ and then asks, ‘What three things would you like to see changed?’ He is genuinely interested in the answers and takes actions on the results. This company is regularly voted one of the best companies to work for in the UK. People feel heard and that their point of view is respected.


Employees perform well when senior managers have faith in them. They don’t need to be micro-managed. Early in my career, my manager once said; ‘People don’t set out to do a bad job. They come to work motivated – your job as a manager is not to de - motivate them’. Sound advice. The majority of people, if well recruited, should be able to do the job they were employed to do. The job of managers is to give them the confidence to do it well. This means telling them; ‘we are pleased you joined us’ or ‘thank you for a terrific piece of work’.

One of the biggest complaints from staff is that senior managers rarely say thank you for their efforts. Yes, they are paid to do their jobs, but they can also choose to take their talents elsewhere. Most people don’t know that what they do is appreciated and why. Managers spend a lot of time agonising over giving people difficult feedback. A similar amount of time (if not more) could be spent on giving them praise. The more specific the feedback, the more likely that it will be valued, because people will then understand what they are doing well. A hand-written note of thanks will be kept for years and will give that person the confidence to grow and develop. A little appreciation goes a long way.

Three key messages in 27 words!

So to summarise this article in three key messages: when talking to staff:

1. Describe a worthwhile purpose that clarifies daily priorities

2. Show people you care about them and their work challenges

3. Give them praise and feedback that builds their confidence.

You will have a happy motivated workforce that thinks you are a great boss!


Kotter, J. P. (1996) Leading Change; Harvard Business School Press

Covello, V. Centre for Risk Communication

Towers Watson, (2012) Global Workforce Study

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