Downward Communication with Employees

boss scolding his employee

Managing Your Words

If you’ve ever managed a team, whether as an entrepreneur or as an employee of a larger organization, chances are that your downward communication (from you to your employee) have had a lasting effect for years to come.

The question is: was that downward communication with your employee helpful or hurtful?

I recently finished a podcast series on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how by understanding it you can target the highest needs by employees and retention. One of those needs is self-esteem building, which can come in the form of words by leaders.

After I posted the series, I was very curious. How many current leaders could remember positive or negative things said by their former leaders?

Here are some of the responses:

Positive Downward Communication

“One person told me that I had formed some amazing relationships with some really tough kids, and said the kids just lit up when they saw me. Another told me ‘some people have it, others don’t…do people a service and be a therapist. The world needs you’.”

“Actually took the time to get to know me, saw me for what I brought to the team. I was just so touched when she did my review that everything she said felt authentic to my work.”

“ I know you’re reliable and I can trust you to do things right and get them done on time.”

“You can’t pay for a conscientious employee, it has to come from within, and you’re the type of person who is naturally conscientious.” 

Negative Downward Communication

“ (After a demotion) we need you to train this guy we just hired in everything that you used to do.”

“We pay you too much for family life balance.”

“ First week on the job, a client stated she was suicidal. I was alone with her, in the basement of the school. No protocol was taught. Couldn’t reach my supervisor. The dean of the school helped. Client was supposed to be transported by her family to the crisis center. I didn’t know the crisis center had a mobile unit that would’ve come to the school- they didn’t offer when I spoke to them on the phone. Family didn’t take her to be evaluated, but thankfully she was ok. Boss said: ‘Well, this is where you fucked up, girlfriend’…and went on to tell me it was on my head if something happened to the girl.

“I know you’re new, but I’m not going to show you anything about this plant.” Then he walked away.”

As you can see from the sample size, people don’t forget these impactful statements.

My Negative Downward Communication Experiences

I’m not immune to them, either.

 I remember working my first real job outside of summer camps. It was at a fast food restaurant near campus and I was the midnight shift janitor. I loved my job. I was alone, could play music while I cleaned, and ate all the leftover food. As long as the place was spotless when I left, they were happy.

The manager was a nice guy, but i didn’t quite trust his  care or concern beyond the surface. This was very apparent when I cut myself on a slicing machine and couldn’t find the First Aid kit. When I finally did, I saw that it was in his locked office. I told him about it and his only response to me was “well…don’t get hurt next time.”

This was more than 20 years ago and it taught me an early lesson about demonstrating compassion for your subordinates.

My Positive Experience

I also benefited from positive downward communication that came at just the right time. There was a period in my life where I was in a high-demand position as a leadership instructor for up and coming supervisors. I was good at my job on the outside, but the combination of life stress and behind-the-scenes work was overwhelming. I had too much pride at the time to ask for help when I needed it. All my students completed their course requirements, so my teaching skills were good. In fact, I had several award winners. But the mistakes I made behind closed doors were becoming too risky. I was asked to step down and accept a different position in the organization.

I felt horrible about the situation. It was fair for them to ask me to leave and I clearly needed more personal help than they could give me. As I turned in my keys for the final day, I apologized for letting them down and felt like a failure.

“Well, how many students came through your classes?”, one manager asked me.

We did the quick math. “More than two hundred.”

“That’s 200 + lives you had a positive impact on. You didn’t fail. Maybe you weren’t here as long as you wanted to be or we expected you to be, but you didn’t fail. You did your job and 200 people are better for it.”

I never forgot those words, either. They taught me the value of every experience and outcome. I made it a point to always have something positive for someone I work with, even when things are tough. 

The same with my family. It’s more than me providing safety and security for my wife and children. I need to build them up as they build me up. I do it with actions and words, even when things aren’t always working out. 

Don’t forget to do the same for everyone that works for you, even if you have to let them go. Constructive criticism is one thing; cutting someone down is another.

They might be just like me when I was an instructor: good at what I do, but not quite ready to do it for long term. They can use what they’ve learned by working with you to go on and do bigger and bolder things.

Your words can have that kind of impact.

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