8 Leadership Communication Habits That Disengage Employees

One of the crucial elements of an engaging work experience is quality, effective communication between leaders and their employees. Communicating to engage requires managers to be aware of not only what they say, but how they say it, how often they say it, and the impact of their message in terms of employee engagement.

Unfortunately, whether through training or because of their personalities, many in managerial roles have developed disengaging communication habits that they might not be aware are undermining employees’ trust and commitment.

Below are eight of the most common habits, the underlying message each communicates, and better approaches leaders can take that improve engagement by focusing on how employees will perceive a particular message and move forward after receiving it.

1. Multitasking during conversations

You might be really busy. You might have a handful of burning tasks that each require your immediate attention and working on them while having a chat with an employee might seem like a good way to make a dent in your endless to-do list. I get it. Nobody will fault you for wanting to streamline your work day. But doing so at the expense of giving an employee your full attention can have unintended negative effects on his or her engagement. Also, it’s just plain rude. For example, if an employee comes over to your desk and you’re typing away on your computer, even if you say “I’m listening”, the fact that you aren’t facing her says that you’re not fully engaged in the conversation. Why should an employee be engaged in her work if her boss only pays partial attention when she needs to talk?

The message it conveys: “You’re not important enough for me to give you my undivided attention.”

What to do instead: Drop whatever it is you’re doing, face your employee, and have a conversation without interruptions or distractions. It’s that simple and it will show that you are engaged.

2. Listening to respond

Active listening is fundamental to effective communication, and for good reason. Listening with the intent to understand, instead of listening to respond, helps to build a positive, trusting relationship between communicators. This kind of relationship must be in place if leaders expect to engage their employees as partners in action. But some managers do not listen to understand; they look for loopholes or weak spots or inaccuracies in what an employee says so they can exploit those weaknesses and “win” the conversation. Or they are so anxiously chomping at the bit to insert a rebuttal that they miss much of what their employees are trying to say.

The message it conveys: “I don’t care about what you’re saying. I care about showing you that I’m right/smart/in charge.”

What to do instead: Take off the boss ear muffs so you can actually hear what your employee is trying to say, wait for her to finish talking, and then acknowledge what she said by asking for clarification and paraphrasing back what you understand to be her message.

3. The ‘deflect and pivot’ maneuver

Often done when listening to respond, managers use this Jedi mind trick to shut down an employee’s argument when they know she is making a valid point, but they just don’t want to admit defeat because the boss is always supposed to be right. Rather than conceding the employee’s position, the manager ignores what she says and pivots to another topic that provides a tactical advantage. For example…

Employee: “We don’t have the resources needed to meet all of the demands of this project. We just can’t keep up with all of the customer issues being raised with the number of people we have trying to respond to them.”

Manager: “I’ve noticed you have developed an attitude problem. I think it’s time to put you on a Performance Improvement Plan.”


The message it conveys: “I can’t handle the idea that you’re right and I’m wrong, so I’m just going to ignore your point and talk about something else that will reinforce my authority over you. Ha! Boss: 1. Employee: 0.”

What to do instead: Acknowledge what your employee says. Even if it stings a little to be wrong when you’re a leader, at least start by indicating you’ve heard her point. Then try something different. Instead of responding to protect your position, practice a little curiosity and humility. Ask for more information. And if you’re wrong, admit it. Leaders don’t always have to be in the right, but they do have to be humble and support their employees if they want them to be engaged.

4. Condescension

When you talk to your employees like they are two-year-olds, it drives a wedge between you that makes it nearly impossible to have constructive, engaging conversations. The exasperated tone, the downward vocal inflection, or using their name when you’re looking right at them – these mannerisms sound like a parent chiding her toddler for drawing on the wall with crayon again. You hired adults. Talk to them like adults. Don’t treat them like children even if they haven’t met your expectations.

The message it conveys: “I’m better than you are simply by virtue of my title, so I’m just gonna go ahead and talk to you like you’re beneath me. Mmkay?”

What to do instead: Treat employees as business partners whose expertise and contributions are just as valuable to the organization as yours. Use the same tone and demeanor as you would if you were speaking to the CEO.

5. Intimidation

I’ve talked before about how ineffective and damaging intimidation is in the long run. Yelling, threatening, glaring: whatever weapon you choose to put to an employee’s head will certainly make her do (or not do) what you expect, but only to avoid immediate danger. I promise you that doing so will have cancerous effects that far outweigh any temporary benefits or results. Intimidation buys you begrudging compliance today at the cost of engagement thereafter.

The message it conveys: “I’m the boss! I speak loud and carry a big stick to protect my fragile ego. Cross me and I will destroy you.”

What to do instead: Practice empathy. Do you enjoy it when someone tries to intimidate you? Do you feel inspired to partner with them toward achieving a common goal? Didn’t think so. Always lead with kindness.

6. Under communicating

Keeping employees in the dark about important matters, whether intentionally or because you’re too busy, can degrade trust and engagement. If your team lacks guidance and information about the organization, their roles, or their performance, then they can’t contribute their best toward executing priorities. I was guilty of this during my time managing a team. Luckily I worked with some truly awesome and self-directed individuals, but I still should have been more visible and communicative. Even if you’re totally swamped and there just seems to be no time to meet with your employees, you have to make time. If they feel informed and included in the goings on of the team and the organization as a whole they are more likely to be be engaged.

The message it conveys: *…Crickets*

What to do instead: Talk with your employees individually and as a group about what engaging communication looks like for them. Do they benefit from long team meetings, brief Scrum-style check-ins, regular one-on-ones? Whatever approach works best for you and your team, stick to it and make communicating a priority.

7. Over communicating

At the other end of the communication spectrum is the tendency for many managers to inundate their employees with messages throughout the day. They e-mail, call, e-mail some more, instant message (or “ping”….ugh), pop up from their desk like a whack-a-mole a few dozen times, and then lob seven or eight more e-mails each with different questions to answer and conflicting demands that are all top priority. Here’s the thing you might not realize: every time you interrupt an employee with another message, it takes her away from whatever task she was working on (probably another burning issue you threw her way) to deal with it. This can be frustrating, exhausting, confusing, and, of course, disengaging.

The message it conveys: “I don’t respect your time or boundaries. You should always just drop everything and respond to my e-mails. Why haven’t you responded to my e-mail yet? I’m going to send you another e-mail asking you to respond to my e-mail.”

What to do instead: Practice reflection and restraint. Do you really need to reach out and ask your employee that question, or is it a bit of research you can do on your own? And please, for the love of all that’s good, stop flagging everything as high importance. Seeing multiple emails from you with that red exclamation point is enough to make your employees scream.

8. Overwhelming energy

Nonverbal cues like body language and facial expression, as well as verbal cues such as tone of voice communicate more about a speaker’s message than what is actually being said. There is another element that encompasses both types of communication and it can have a huge impact on how your employees perceive you when you interact with them: your energy. If you come charging up to them and rapid-fire questions with a tone and demeanor that feels like you’re at DEFCON 1, you’ll immediately overwhelm them even if you’re simply checking in. Using language that implies a sense of panic, like “Oh my God!”, will incite feelings of panic among employees.

The message it conveys: “Ahhhhhh! We’re all gonna die!”

What to do instead: Relax. Move slowly with calm, reassuring body language while respecting employees’ personal space. Speak slowly with a positive tone and cadence. Unless it’s a true emergency (a real emergency, like the building is on fire; not a business “emergency”, like the VP is demanding a status update from your team) take your level of excitement down a few notches and be the beacon of unperturbed, positive energy that your employees need.


What do you think? What are some other communication habits that leaders should break in order to better engage their employees?

About the author: Jonathan D. Villaire is a bridge-builder, truth-teller, and advocate for empathy who helps leaders understand how to effectively engage their employees and, more importantly, how to stop disengaging them. He founded Cognize Consulting with the aim of giving supervisors, managers, and executives a new perspective on employee engagement: See employees as human beings, not as human capital. Understand how to create an employee experience that increases retention and attracts top talent. Engage employees with a leadership mindset of empathy, curiosity, and humility. He is a speaker, coach, blogger, and author of the upcoming book The Stepford Employee Fallacy: The Truth about Employee Engagement in the Modern Workplace.


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