Having authority can contribute to the very problems managers believe are solved by that authority. Why, because when managers have authority they don’t think they need to communicate as much. This is particularly true when managers confront threats to the successful completion of projects they are managing.
Years of research indicates that managers who have authority over resources important to subordinates (e.g., pay, job assignments, vacation time) assume they do not have to persuade or convince subordinates of their assessment of a situation. Managers are often blind to the fact that subordinates see things from a different point of view. According to a recent study published in Organization Science, one result of this blindness is that when managers with authority confront a threat to the successful completion of a project, they engage in fewer and less immediate (e.g., face to face) communications than managers lacking that same authority.
In reviewing the results of the study, what is particularly interesting is that when compared to their counterparts without authority, managers with authority do not engage in Understanding Conversations or use complete Performance Conversations. The study indicates that managers with authority do not explain why a particular event is a threat, explore how it might be resolved, or address subordinates’ concerns regarding the impact changing their work to resolve the threat may have on other work (an Understanding Conversation). Furthermore, rather than get good promises from their subordinates, they assume their subordinates will “just do it”. Unfortunately, 72% of the time the managers’ communications regarding a threat are ineffective and their subordinates do not respond as expected, requiring additional communication. This additional communication can result in a loss of credibility and diminish their reputation.
One conclusion from this study is that managers use authority as an excuse for reducing their communication on the assumption that their subordinates will automatically accept what they are told and act accordingly. We know from our work with The Four Conversations, however, that there is no substitute for appropriate and complete communication.