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Maybe working in a second language encourages you to be brave or to bend convention: being typically English, I’m not competent enough in another tongue to know. But I was struck by a lyric by a young Norwegian called Sondre Lerche, in a song called Two Way Monologues:

Start the two way monologues with words that rhyme
Start the two way monologues that speak your mind
We’re talking two way monologues

It’s a great song (IMHO), but the title captures a situation we’ve all been in: two people talking at each other and neither of them really taking on board the words coming out of the mouth of the other. In terms of the topics we’ve covered in this blog, this isn’t something particularly new as workplace-related problems go. We’ve previously looked, for example, at how giving feedback involves listening just as much as talking. Unless you can be sure your words are being accurately heard, how can you tell the feedback is being clearly understood? Chinese whispers have their place, but it’s a place closer to situation comedy than performance appraisal.

It was something that a CIPD press release based around information from an Employee Outlook Survey triggered from memory. CIPD’s headline concern was that managers’ opinion of how highly their staff regarded them was noticeably different – and noticeably more positive – than the staff’s own opinions. Ignoring the scope for dark humour (although, to be honest, that was quite a large scope), this was simultaneously unsurprising and depressing. Unsurprising in that most people like to think they’re doing a reasonable job, especially in terms of their relationships with others where failure can – and probably should – feel rather more personal than a failing in a more technical or knowledge-based skill. And depressing in that a gap of this scale not just exists but persists, when you can’t help but suspect it would be better for everyone to be more candid about the situation so that something can be done about it.

Reading the detail of the report (which you can download as a PDF here), something more mysterious emerged. Managers and employees impressions of the meetings and conversations they have sat in and shared seem oddly divergent. Another old song swam into memory, and suddenly in my head Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold were reminiscing on the set of Gigi:

Honore: We met at nine
Mamita: We met at eight
H: I was on time
M: No, you were late
H: Ah, yes, I remember it well

Compare the following figures, where both groups where asked how often they meet to discuss workload, meeting objectives and any other work-related issues:

Managers

Employees

Weekly

50

17

Twice a month

11

7

Once a month

17

15

Less frequently

17

30

Never

5

12

How much time overall per month managers spend talking to each person they manage about their workload, objectives and any other work-related issues:

Managers

Employees

30 mins or less

35

62

30 – 60 mins

30

20

1 – 2 hours

17

11

2 – 3 hours

6

4

More than 3 hours

11

4

I can see quite clearly how employees’ opinion – especially where it’s expressed confidentially to a third party – of the quality of management they receive could differ from the managers’ opinions, but the figures above suggest that the two groups have sharply different opinions about how often they meet and for how long. The survey goes on to show that they are no greater agreement about the topics they discuss when they do meet. So how come 33% of employees don’t notice the weekly meetings they have with their manager, and even the ones who do think these meetings take place seem to think they are considerably shorter than their managers are reporting?

The cynic in me concludes that managers are over-reporting the frequency and duration of these meetings to present themselves as positively as possible to survey-makers; even under cover of anonymity, wanting to put your best foot forward and show the finest profile is understandable. Or possibly that the employees are sleeping through most of these exchanges. (Although this would require them to all wear faulty watches and – heaven forfend – completely fabulate their timesheet reporting.)

The alarmed onlooker in me, in contrast, wonders if managers are including conversations where these issues are covered rather tangentially – project reviews, wash-ups or planning meetings – and where the conversation isn’t presented as being about the themes CIPD are asking about. Or if they are including the passing asides and comments that are made in the comments of the working day. Coaching in the moment is all well and good, and reinforces the concept that performance appraisal and management is a daily task rather than an occasional scheduled obligation. But it doesn’t explain why one half of the office thinks it’s in a meeting with the other half, while the other half haven’t noticed that it’s going on. In domestic scenarios, that kind of thing leads rapidly to divorce, men living in the shed or milkmen who take 45 minutes to drop off the red top. Perhaps we’ve stumbled on an explanation of workplace churn? (No pun intended.)

Maybe on second thoughts, I was right first time and Sondre Lerche put it better when it comes to the consequences of Two Way Monologues:

We were chasing rabbits on the hill
And that prairie-life was great, but never real
`Cause we never saw no rabbits out there, ever, no, not once
All we did was put a fire up and watch it burn for months