Managers continue to miss the sometimes subtle but often-times obvious ways that they are failing to communicate with the employees they manage.

This came home to me in a fresh way back in April when I was training a group of about 50 managers with China Telecom.  They were gathered from across different cities in China and they were at different levels in the organization, some front-line supervisors of employees and some of them director-level managers of other managers.

China TelecomChina Telecom is like Ma Bell was to an older generation of Americans.  They have over 300,000 employees, their annual turnover (revenue) is north of USD$50 billion and they are the largest fixed-line telephone company in China and third largest mobile phone company.  It’s a state-owned company, but they run up to date equipment on a huge data network.  The management style is still typical for China, but there is an eagerness to learn new things and try new approaches, especially since the managers know that there is a big gap between them and the younger generation (the post-80′s and post 90′s generation in China).

I had to do the training in Chinese because our time was limited and translation would have taken up too much of that time.  Besides, we weren’t covering highly technical knowledge that required precision, so they had to deal with my passable Mandarin.

The concern of retaining and developing good staff (or talent) was the subject of our session.  I knew that the generation gap was one of the issues.  A culture in which managers are rarely challenged by staff and where managers have to skillfully gain indirect feedback from their employees was another issue.  I decided to introduce them to a simple model of behavior that we could use in training.

How many of them had heard of the DISC model?  Not a single hand went up.  This has been a classic of trainers in the West for the past generation.  William Marston of Harvard advanced the theory (based on his research) almost a hundred years ago that there are classes of behavior response that you can readily observe.  Some people are more active in the face of adversity (dominance) while others are more passive (submission).  Some people look on the world optimistically and try to engage people (inducement) while others see the world as unfavorable and demanding (compliance).

Instead of going into the theory behind the model we did exercises based on applications of the four behavior style traits.  Two hours later with some fun and memorable experiences behind us, the managers were starting to see that how they are communicating is not really the way their employees are hearing them.  Despite speaking the same language (human language, Chinese in this case), the meanings were different.  When a manager is asking for information, the employee feels challenged or even threatened.  Is this a set up?  What if I get it wrong?  Or perhaps an employee makes a suggestion for a workplace improvement.  The manager considers feasibility and misses that this was both courageous of the individual employee and also an expression of a widespread and generally shared desire of most of the other employees.

Tools like the DISC model help managers to become more aware of their own behavior and communication style as well as start tuning into others.  The ultimate goal is to see better communication by adapting instead of blindly “broadcasting” on their individual channel only.

The managers got a big “a-ha” and at the same time showed a desire to learn and apply more of this kind of insight.  It’s good to be a management trainer in Asia at this time…

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