Ineffective Manager Communication and Disengaged Employees

 According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report (2013), 70% of American employees are disengaged from their work leading to workplace dysfunction, customer dissatisfaction, and a negative impact on the organization’s finances,  which led its CEO, Jim Clifton, to suggest that hiring managers is the most important leadership decision. The most significant impact on employee engagement is a manger who communicates effectively. Ineffective manager communication skills create distrust, confusion, and apathy among workers. A proficient communicator provides a real financial value to the organization beyond the intrinsic humanistic value of treating employees with respect. This paper describes the value of manager communication skills and the direct effect on employee satisfaction and productivity, team cohesiveness, and ultimately the success or failure of the organization.

Link between manager communication and employee engagement

Employee engagement is the best measure of manager communication effectiveness. Confusion exists in academic and popular business literature about what constitutes employee engagement and no generally accepted definition exists. Welch (2011) examined the evolution of the employee engagement concept from the 1990’s noting the difficulty in developing an accepted definition, the confusing use of the term among academics and business consultants, and the question of whether engagement is an attitude or psychological state which can be affected by influence or a personality trait which is relatively fixed. For this paper I will use the description that is consistent with most academic literature as described by Markos and Sridevi (2010): “engagement is about passion and commitment-the willingness to invest oneself and expand one’s discretionary effort to help the employer succeed, which is beyond simple satisfaction with the employee arrangement or basic loyalty to the employer.” (p. 90) 

Negative impact of disengaged employees

According to Leary, Green, Denson, Schoenfeld, Henley, and Langford (2013), employee disengagement is a significant factor in workplace burnout, dysfunctional teams, poor customer service, and negative financial impact on the organization. According to Gallup (2013), “…actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. between $450 billion to $550 billion each year in lost productivity. They are more likely to steal from their companies, negatively influence their coworkers, miss workdays, and drive customers away.” (pp. 12-13) Leary et al. (2013) observe that “managerial incompetence is devastating to employee engagement and job satisfaction, and contributes significantly to employee burnout.” (p. 113) Understanding the impact of dysfunctional manager behavior and communication ability on employee engagement is important for correcting disruptive behaviors and encouraging good communication skills.

Impact of dysfunctional managers

Leary et al. (2013) described three dysfunctional leader dispositions and their impact on employee engagement, including manifestations in the communication between manager and employees:
  • Moving Away includes behaviors such as withdrawal and disengagement which leads to infrequent or unclear communication but also includes yelling, threatening, and belittling employees.
  • Moving Against behavior involves disrespectful and derogatory comments and manipulation which creates an environment of anger and distrust. This behavior also includes impulsive communication that creates confusion and wasted resources as employees follow directions that are ill-conceived and likely abandoned for the next impulsive decision.
  • Moving Toward is characterized by leader inaction, decision avoidance, and disloyalty to subordinates and is often accompanied by micromanagement and frequent criticism.

Organizations who want to minimize the potential for employee disengagement should remove or retrain leaders exhibiting dysfunctional characteristics. A successful organization needs leaders throughout the enterprise who are proficient in their work and actively practice employee engaging behaviors. 

High ROI of effective manager communication

According to Welch (2011), effective leader communication is a critical factor for creating high employee engagement and a sense of purpose in the organization. The communicative leader creates a positive work environment in which the employee can develop professionally and serve confidently. Xu and Thomas (2010) noted that managers who showed concern for employees, articulated a vision, and communicated effectively engaged employees, encouraged positive organizational citizenship, and buffered them from negative characteristics of the job. Confused and poorly integrated communications negatively affected trust, relationships, and management credibility. (K. Mishra, Boynton, & A. Mishra, 2014)
 Effective manager communication has a demonstrable positive effect on the profitability of the organization. 
  • According to Gallup (2013), “work units in the top 25% of Gallup’s Q12 Client Database have significantly higher productivity, profitability, and customer ratings, less turnover and absenteeism, and fewer safety incidents than those in the bottom 25%.” (p. 9) 
  • A study of “…360,000 employees from 41 companies in the world’s 10 economically strong countries found that both operating margin and net profit margins reduced over a three year period in companies with low engagement,” and contrasted with opposite effects in companies that encouraged employee engagement. (Markos and Sridevi, 2010, p. 92) 
  • Xu and Thomas (2010) cited several studies concluding that “higher levels of employee engagement are associated with increased return on assets, higher earning per employee, higher performance, greater sales growth, and lower absenteeism.” (p. 400) 
  • Manager and employee interactions that encourage engagement promote human dignity and make a positive impact on organizational profitability and customer interactions. Such behavior can be a competitive advantage.  

What effective manager communication looks like

Communicating vision

In order to drive organizational success and employee engagement, effective communication practices must begin with senior leadership communicating a vision for the company and its employees. To be effective, the top leader vision must be “…a tantalizing, sought after future state; a mental imagery that is well-articulated with widespread communication; and a model which contains processes that enable followers to achieve it.” (J. Mayfield, M. Mayfield, & Sharbrough III, 2015, p. 103) Leadership commitment to the mission and vision must be genuine and evangelized otherwise it will be rejected as a corporate fad. (Markos & Sridevi, 2010) Managers must make the vision of the top leaders actionable and relevant to the roles of the employees under their supervision.

Empowering employees

Development Dimensions International (DDI, 2005), as cited in Markos & Sridevi (2010), states that a manager must, among other things, communicate in a way that empowers, supports, encourages and develops employees and encourages collaboration with the team. 

Connecting the employee to the organizational vision

Managers demonstrate the value of an employee by sharing the organizational vision and the employee’s role in making the vision a reality and engage with the employee personally to support their professional growth, recognize achievement, correct undesirable behaviors in a constructive way, listen to their ideas and concerns, and demonstrate genuine interest in the employee’s well-being. (Markos & Sridevi, 2010; K. Mishra, Boynton, & A. Mishra, 2014) The manager must also communicate effectively with the workgroup to promote productivity and harmony among the employees who work together.

Importance of active listening

Effective communication skills require an ability to listen as well as talk. Managers must promote two-way communication to allow employees to provide input, show respect for their views, and involve them in decision making. (Markos & Sridevi, 2010) In the modern workplace, managers may be tempted to conduct most communication through email. However, face-to-face communication is considered more reliable and credible than written communication because the employee can evaluate the verbal message with non-verbal cues, such as voice tone, body language, and facial expressions, for validation or discrepancies. (K. Mishra, Boynton, & A. Mishra, 2014) 
Communication conveys a sense of worth to another person. When talking with employees, leaders should use empathetic language for positive and negative events affecting the employee to convey a sense of humanity and concern for the emotional well-being of the employee. (J. Mayfield & M. Mayfield, 2012) Managerial success depends on continual dialog and respectful interaction with employees. “…Leadership that provides a supportive, trusting environment allows employees to fully invest their energies into their work roles.” (Xu and Thomas, 2010, p. 401)

An investment worth making

Many businesses would invest significant time and money into a technical solution that would improve employee productivity, customer satisfaction, and financial profitability. Numerous studies prove that these results can be obtained with managers who communicate effectively. Managers with dysfunctional communication skills have a negative impact in the workplace and the organizational mission regardless of their technical expertise or seniority with the company. Managers with effective communication skills generate higher employee engagement resulting in productivity and profitability gains for the organization while enjoying career advancement. Developing communication skills does not require a significant financial investment or innate ability but is the key to managerial success.


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