One of the workplace challenges that managers face is effectively communicating with employees. Because of varied backgrounds, experiences and perceptions, employees can interpret messages from managers quite differently, leading to confusion and conflict.

During a recent internal training session at my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, diversity expert Keith Woods from National Public Radio talked about how employees and managers can take off the blinders and have clearer conversations with each other. Woods noted that we often arrive at snap judgments based on misperceptions, creating serious misunderstandings that can lead to low morale and difficulty accomplishing day-to-day tasks and the larger organizational mission.

While it may not be possible to eliminate the instinct to quickly judge, and in some cases misinterpret, the intent and meaning of conversations, there are steps that can be taken to improve these exchanges.

Here, a few tips offered by Woods:

Don’t beat around the bush: Building trust requires being honest. Be clear and forthright about what you mean when meeting with an employee. When you get a response, ask questions to make sure you and the employee are on the same page. Woods suggests that people fear being misunderstood, dismissed or labeled. If that is happening, it's critical to confront that fear, get it out in the open and then clarify matters.

Be respectful: You may be the boss, but you still want to build positive, collegial relationships that will ensure your employees are engaged, motivated and satisfied with their work. Woods suggests being “conscious of how your tone or volume of your voice can combine with your body language to reveal your emotions.” The trick is to turn your passion into a positive attribute, and not let it create fissures.

Stay open to change: Be sure to listen, ask questions and take the employee’s view into account. Sometimes your employee perceives the issue at hand or the circumstances differently. Even though you may not necessarily change your view or the direction you want taken, it is important to understand the perspectives and concerns of your employees. And in some cases, you in fact may want to alter course based on their feedback.

Build relationships: Conversations do not always have to center on work. Get to know your employees. Woods suggests talking about issues that make you the same such as “family, ambitions, fears, passions.” Finding common ground creates “good faith you’ll need to draw on when conversations get tense.” In this same vein, Woods recommends making it a priority to keep learning something new about your colleagues.

Never give up: If a conversation is uncomfortable, there will be a natural tendency to avoid conflict and sweep matters under the rug. As Woods notes, “the toughest thing to do when something is uncomfortable is to keep doing it.” But he points out that it is important to “stay in the room” and work to make sure there is “gain on the other side of the pain.”

Having productive conversations and avoiding managers and employees talking past each other requires effort, patience and persistence. It also means that, as a leader, you must be willing to understand, appreciate and in some cases accommodate the views of your employees, or at least clearly explain your views and the reasons for your decisions.

If you have had any experiences involving muddled communications or examples of overcoming misunderstandings, please share in the comment section below. You can also email me at

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Read also:

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.