Nagging employees can improve their performance


Conventional wisdom says that employees disengage when their managers frequently repeat the same messages.  In this line of thinking, people would view repetitive communicating as nagging and tune out.  Worst case, nagging would breed resentment of the manager and create strife. Perhaps this is the case, but do the benefits of redundant communications outweigh its perceived challenges?  New research out of The Harvard Business School explored the impact of persistent communications on message acceptance and effectiveness.

The researchers studied the daily communication patterns of 13 project managers in 6 firms in the IT, health care and telco sectors.  The findings were conclusive:  those managers who are deliberately redundant communicators drive their projects forward more quickly and smoothly than those who are not.  However, there was a caveat. The amount of direct organizational power had a major influence on the frequency and type of communication as well as the pace of team performance.

In many companies, PMs do not possess power over the people and projects they coordinate. Since they lack direct authority, these managers understand that they must work harder at influencing and directing others.  As such, they will attempt to enlist support from team members through more repetitive communications.  For example, they will time first and second messages close together, typically starting with a phone call or face-to-face meeting followed up by an e-mail.  Not surprisingly, higher frequency communications will create a greater sense of individual urgency and quicker follow up, very often leading to higher team performance.

On the other hand, PMs who possess direct power will tend to communicate less frequently, at least initially.  Relying more on their formal authority, these PMs will often delay communicating.  Typically they would only send one e-mail, assuming that one notice is enough to incite an employee to undertake their task.  Because a sense of urgency is not always created, the recipient may not feel a strong impetus to action.  As a result, team performance can suffer in the short term, forcing the PM to re-exert their authority to get the project back on track.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that message clarity mattered less than repetition in boosting team performance. It’s not the message but rather the frequency of the message that matters in driving results. 

In spite of the differences in communication styles, the study found that both types of PMs delivered on the same deadlines and budget goals with the same frequency regardless of the amount of power.  However, managers who communicated more frequently over different channels got employees to perform at a higher level, and with less mop-up needed later.  While some employee resentment would naturally occur, the performance benefits of persistent communications were clear.

How can managers leverage the power of redundant communications without breeding antagonism?

  • Include and publicize high-frequency communication strategies as part of a standard project management or employee communication process;
  • Utilize advanced and automated collaboration management tools that makes the software the nagger;
  • Make high frequency communication strategies a part of standard employee training and on-boarding.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

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