Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

In a much-visited video clip on Google, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, can be seen bouncing around the stage to dance music, screaming, whooping and exhorting his hyped-up audience to “COME AARN, GED UP”. He then pauses, panting, before shouting at the top of his voice: “I HAVE FOUR WORDS FOR YOU: I – LOVE – THIS – COMPANY . . . YEAHHHS!”

Mr Ballmer evidently took to heart – and to the extreme – that cliché of leadership that you can never communicate enough with your employees. Chief executives routinely pay homage to communication and boast about the ways they “reach out” to their people – through “town hall” meetings, site visits, newsletters, open doors and, now, blogs.

Those on the receiving end, however, are often left feeling bemused or, worse, cheated. What employees really want, according to a new survey, are straight-talkers who keep them up to date with bad, as well as good, news. They also want leaders who stay true to themselves instead of putting on a performance or preaching through PowerPoint.

The 1,000 employees surveyed regard communicating with staff as a more important leadership quality than having a clear vision for the company. Only 40 per cent say their boss communicates effectively.

The report, “Straight Talking”, by CHA, a workplace communications consultancy, says the findings suggest four categories of communicators. The “considerate” ones talk directly to staff rather than through managers or the media, invite feedback and value people’s views. About a third of employees have bosses like this – considerate, sincere and motivating.

On the other hand, a third say their bosses fail to provide enough information about plans, communicate too late or not at all and talk at them rather than having a conversation.

These “controlling” communicators also tend to underestimate the intelligence of their workers and how far they can trust them. They are keener to talk to industry peers than to their staff, according to the survey by Explorandum, a market research company.

Many respondents complain of the lack of face-to-face contact with their leaders. “Nobody at floor level ever gets asked their opinion, even though they are the ones dealing directly with the customers and the ones with the real experience of what people need,” says one employee.

Another says that, if she was in charge, she would “try to remember who works for me, and why, and their names; show some interest in what they have to say and actually try to act on it; be less aloof and proud and feel free to admit when I am wrong or need help”.

Two other communication styles emerge from the survey: the “charismatic”, exemplified by Sir Richard Branson, and the “understated”, where the leader is often admired but so reserved that he or she leaves people guessing and wanting more. Phil Knight, chairman of Nike, and Sven-Göran Eriksson, the former England manager, are cited as cases in point. Some leaders fit more than one category – Jack Welch, for example, could be categorised both as controlling and charismatic.

Can bad communicators change fundamentally, or is it all rooted in personality? Bob Ayling, the unpopular British Airways chief executive ousted in 2000, came across as a distant and abrasive leader unable to connect with his employees.

“Leaders can learn to tell the truth, to admit what they don’t know and to admit mistakes,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organisational learning at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. “They can also learn to be less controlling. People want to make decisions at work and have some control and responsibility, just as they do in other spheres of their lives.”

Prof Pfeffer gives an example in a forthcoming book, What Were They Thinking? Unconventional Wisdom About Management, to be published next year by Harvard Business School Press.

“When Anne Mulcahy became CEO of Xerox in 2001, after just five months on the job she told Wall Street the company’s business model was flawed,” he writes. Then she explained to employees, directly and honestly, the challenges they faced, the first step in creating a remarkable turnaround at Xerox. That honesty, although possibly unexpected, told employees the person in charge actually knew and was willing to talk about the truth and had a plan for making things better.”

What matters most is authenticity. Steve Ballmer’s stage performance was jaw-dropping. But it represented the way he is, says Darren Briggs, a partner at The Company Agency, which advises corporate leaders on communications.

Mr Briggs, who worked at Microsoft 12 years ago, says Mr Ballmer had a reputation for being loud, direct and not particularly good at listening – the opposite of Bill Gates. “But people accept that behaviour because that’s what he’s like. It’s not a show he’s putting on. If he’d been calmer [on the stage] and discussed things, people would have said: ‘What happened to Steve Ballmer?’”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article