Tips and Articles

The Bard’s Timeless Tips for Successful Communication,
2nd edition, coming soon!
by Thomas Leech
 Publisher: Presentations Press, (Originally McGraw-Hill, 2001)

Ten Lessons On Management Communication,
From The Bard Himself

By Tom Leech

If you think management techniques have changed in the past 400 years or so, think again. Astute leaders from centuries past, namely William Shakespeare regularly addressed a variety of management challenges, dilemmas and processes. In the realm of communication he has Hamlet conducting a lengthy self-assessment, Mark Antony addressing those “Friends, Romans and Countrymen,” and Henry V urging his team “Once more into the breach..” Many of these provide lessons for managers, even after four centuries.

  1. Got to communicate.

” No man is the lord of any thing… Till he communicate his parts to others.”
- Troilus & Cressida.

Thus a manager with experience, knowledge and good intentions — all worthy attributes — may be limited in value unless he is able to communicate with senior management, customers and associates.
  2. Keep your perspective.

The most common path into management, excluding heredity privilege, is up through the ranks. Managers have been known to forget their roots and even get a bit pretentious, a trait quickly perceived, and usually resented by subordinates.

“But man, proud man, Dressed in a little brief authority.” Measure for Measure.

  3. Keep the team informed.

In this era of instant communication as represented by e-mail, this should be easier than in the past. Lack of open communication, however, remains a common lament: “Nobody tells us anything…They keep us in the dark, like mushrooms…Knowledge is power, so they don’t tell us nuttin’.” Maybe a better policy would be:

“…to speak plain and to the purpose.” – Much Ado About Nothing.
  4. Listen and learn.

Another critical attribute is to be a good listener. While many managers may score well on their sending performance, they often score lower on their receiving performance.

“Sweet royalty, bestow on me the sense of hearing.” – Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Here’s a test. Which do you know more of, dedicated, heavy-duty talkers or listeners? Probably the talkers outnumber the good listeners. Yet you probably value good listeners, especially since they don’t interrupt you when you’re doing the talking.
  5. Don’t block the information flow.

Managing properly needs a good information flow. So the manager develops a plan to ask the troops what’s going on. Sometimes, however, that becomes more grilling than invitation:

“What wouldst thou have, boor? what, thick-skin? speak, breathe, discuss; brief, short, quick, snap.” – Merry Wives of Windsor.

If the atmosphere seems to be one of “danger ahead” in communicating upward, it won’t happen. Surely you’ve heard the term “Don’t shoot the messenger.” When the word gets around, as it quickly will, that it’s risky to communicate, the information flow will dry up, as is likely with this battered chap:

“They’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying. ” – King Lear.
  6. Get out among them.

A useful approach is to switch from waiting for them to cross the alleged “open door” to walking through it and out into the workplace. This approach was used by King Henry V, as noted by a beneficiary of

“A little touch of Harry in the night.”

Harry, the King, was faced with a big battle against a far superior force. Deciding he’d be wise to sound out the troops, he applied the management tool we know as MBWA (Management By Wandering Around). At night, in disguise, he gathered the sense of the team, found morale was down, and decided to recharge them up with an all-hands meeting (and that stirring “Once more into the breach” speech.) It worked, they won.
  7. Keep an open mind.

When you do receive input from others, what do you do with it? In this time-pressed world, we’re overwhelmed with information. One of the tough jobs is to separate the valuable from the ordinary. Here Hotspur is reviewing input from a colleague:

“‘The purpose you undertake is dangerous.’ Say you so, say you so? I say unto you again, you are a shallow cowardly hind, and you lie. What a lack-brain is this!”

If your tendency to regularly give input from others short shrift, as Hotspur did (often), you may end up with your campaign going down to defeat just as his did (and which could have been averted had he heeded the warning).
  8. Give them feedback.

One of the manager’s primary duties is to give associates feedback on their performance, e.g. to let them know if a key skill is deficient in a key area:

“How now, Cordelia! mend your speech a little, Lest it may mar your fortunes.” – King Lear.
  9. Less Balance your feedback.

Done well, such feedback will be well-received and seriously considered. Done poorly, feedback can lead to resentment and resistance. So tact has a place here. 

“The truth you speak doth lack some gentleness… You rub the sore, when you should bring the plaster.” – The Tempest.

It’s easy for subordinates to perceive the boss’s comments as constant carping, overdoing the negative and rarely noting the positive. Check your criticism-praise ratio. Are you sparse with “Thanks” or “Good job” to your colleagues, spouse or kids? Now, how often do you praise the dog, cat, or parakeet? Any imbalance there? Try this sometime:

“I can no other answer make but thanks, And thanks and ever…”

  10. Get a scorecard.

With good communication and management, the team sees high quality in action. They are likely to develop an appreciation for their leader, with such praise as:

“He was indeed the glass Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves.”

But what if it’s more like this?

“an arrant, counterfeit rascal.” – Henry V.

Finding out how you rank is not always easy. Thus upward or 360 degree appraisals are used by some organizations, not by others. Lacking good information, managers may have a blind spot about how they are doing or perceived. What to do?

“Oh, that you could turn your eyes toward the napes of your necks, and make but an interior survey of your good selves.”

To summarize, improving communication skills can bring many benefits to the manager and the organization. When positive results are seen — better management support, more opportunities, increased morale — colleagues are likely to see you as an outstanding manager, even laying on high praise, such as Macbeth’s for an associate:

“Thou art the best ‘o th’ cut-throats.”

Isn’t that something to aspire to?