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Ask the Expert : Help! My manager’s poor communication skills stress me & my team out


This article’s expert is trainer Louise Overy


“I am the leader of a small team whose work is project based. I am directly responsible to a line manager. Do you have any tips on how I can manage the stress felt by myself and my team as our line manager is never clear about what is required but is consistently very vocal about what they had expected each time I present the team’s work?”


It’s tricky, ‘managing upwards’ – it feels awkward and perhaps risky, and in this kind of situation it’s absolutely essential! Here are some ideas about what you can do.

There is lots of advice about how to reduce stressful feelings once you’ve got them, elsewhere on this website. You can also increase the resilience in your team by ensuring that you are working collaboratively and appreciatively with them – have a look at our CUSP framework for suggestions.

What’s important here, though, is to deal with the source of the stress – the uncertainty created by your line manager, and the consequent unwarranted criticism when inevitably you fail to read his/her mind.

Remind yourself of what you are here to do and also what your line manager is here to do – each of your responsibilities, and the rights that these bring. You have the right (and the responsibility – you are responsible for the team’s work) to tell your manager that their way of managing is causing the team difficulties, and that there are some simple ways to improve the way this is done…

Does the thought of doing this create feelings of stress itself?! Don’t worry, it’s understandable – and that adrenaline can be put to good use to help you have the conversation! You can manage this if it feels too much by slow breathing to relax, perhaps a couple of minutes focusing on the outside world – a short walk or simply looking out of the window to reduce unhelpful thoughts in your head and feel stronger and more confident about what you are going to say.

And plan what you are going to say, if you are not sure how to out it. Like a script-writer, work out how the conversation might go and the important parts of what you want to say. You can practise it – with a colleague you trust, family or friend – or just out loud by yourself. Get more comfortable with the words beforehand, and it will be easier to say them for real.

Ask for a meeting, say what it’s about in overall terms, and make sure the time allowed is enough for a good discussion.

Here’s an easy framework to help you structure what you want to say. Find the words that feel right to you and get the message across clearly.

What you like about working with your line manager (it’s got to be true!)
It’s great that we have the freedom to decide how we achieve our work targets and goals

What you don’t like about it (say this courteously, simply and briefly– don’t dress it up)
What I and the team find really difficult is that we are often quite unsure about what it is that you actually want or are expecting from us. Then when we present what we’ve done, it feels like it’s always wrong, that we’ve failed … and that is creating stress and affecting the morale of the team

What you want
What I and the team would like is to be able to make sure that we have your/the requirements absolutely clear before we start. To do this we need…[a specification / a project kickoff meeting / whatever it is]

It is useful to think through the consequences for your line manager, as described below, although you may not want to use them as part of your initial description / statement to him/her.

If you do …
‘We will get more work right first time – it will save time, increase our productivity. And the team will be much happier’

If you don’t …
I’m concerned that we will lose some good people from the team, who are getting discouraged. And it’s difficult to work efficiently like this

None of us know exactly how a conversation will go … and using this framework, you can feel confident that you have a way of saying what you want to say clearly, to get what you need.

Good luck!

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