Communication for superintendents

Human interaction is complex and can be difficult to understand. This is largely due to the fact that each individual possesses unique values, beliefs and attitudes. Our parents, our environment and our experiences create this uniqueness in each of us. What's important to me may not be important to you. What you think is inappropriate may be perfectly acceptable to me.

Our interactions with others have led all of us, at times, to say, “I just don't understand!” This results in frustration for ourselves as well as the people we fail to understand. When two people are not communicating effectively, the lack of understanding can have far reaching effects. Miscommunications can severely damage a relationship.

By contrast, achieving a high level of empathy often rewards you with job satisfaction and personal happiness. Unfortunately, these two important components are missing or seriously limited in many people's lives. Getting to know and understand another person can be difficult. However, effective communication is no different than any other skill — it can be learned. This is especially important for superintendents, who interact almost daily with golfers, subordinate employees, club owners, green committees and others. If you continually work at improving your communication skills, you and those around you will reap great rewards.

Knowing how to know others

How can you use communication and understanding to improve your relationships with others? The answer lies with the quality of your interactions with others and how you value your coworkers and acquaintances as human beings. Anyone can demonstrate these skills but the level of effectiveness hinges greatly on your motivation and personal interest in others. You must seek to understand others, but you also must desire to put this understanding to use in improving your relationships with those around you.

This type of orientation has merit in any social situation, especially a golf course setting. During a typical day, a golf course superintendent interacts with many people. For example, the first task in the morning often involves delegating jobs and giving instructions to the crew about the day's work assignments. Next, a conversation with the golf shop, letting the proper authority know that the course is ready to go or that there may be a delay for such things as frost, failed equipment or labor shortages. During the superintendent's morning tour of the golf course there are often discussions with golfers inquiring about the condition of the greens, fairways, etc. In addition, there are times when the superintendent meets with sales people, potential employees or other superintendents, all requiring answers to their questions.

In fact, the situations that demand effective communication are almost endless. That's why communication is a major part of the superintendent's job. How well you do it greatly impacts the impression others will have of you, as well as the golf course you represent.

We all communicate, of course, but not necessarily effectively. Proof of ineffective interaction is found in comments such as, “That's not what I meant,” or, “You never listen to me,” or, “I never knew you felt that way.” If you're like most people, you hear these comments frequently. The following suggestions will help to minimize these situations.

  • Be visible

    Make yourself available in your office or on the golf course (or wherever people can find you easily) on a regular basis.

  • Be approachable

    Try to break down the boss/employee barrier by participating in everyday chit-chat with staff over a cup of coffee or soda.

  • Be a good listener

    Listen carefully during conversations with staff members talking of interests, expectations and personal goals. Pay particular attention to the feelings attached to these statements. Effective listening involves gaining an accurate understanding of what someone is saying. Active listening is a powerful communication skill, noticeably missing in many conversations. Effective listeners ask themselves key questions to ensure they understand what a person is saying. For example, they ask themselves, “What is this person saying?” “What is this person feeling?” and “What does this person mean when they say......?”

  • Be attentive (non-verbally)

    During conversation, carefully attend to the non-verbal behavior of others. Body language may be more powerful and laden with meaning than actual words. Also be aware of your own posture, eye contact and the message you may be conveying. There is a saying, “Your actions speak so loud, and I cannot hear you!” Make sure your actions are saying what you want them to.

  • Be attentive (verbally)

    Each statement uttered by a person contains a “feeling”. Listen carefully to the feelings that individuals are attaching to topics of conversation. Check out the accuracy of your perceptions with feedback comments such as, “It sounds like you feel proud of the work you did on the third green,” or “You're really upset with the group that drove their carts off the path, aren't you?” This type of dialog can serve to confirm your perceptions, and it gives the person you are talking to a feeling of being understood.

  • Be a “summarizer.”

    During and toward the end of a conversation, attempt to accurately summarize key points, along with thoughts and feelings of the conversation. Performing this task will leave the person feeling that you listened and that you valued what they had to say.

  • Learn to deal with angry people

    This is one of the least favorite situations for almost any person. However, as a superintendent, you know that you must occasionally deal with an angry person. When people are angry, they are so emotional that they may not think logically. Often, your first inclination is to try to get people to think about what could have happened differently or what they should do to correct the situation. Of course, correcting them when they are angry will only serve to make them angrier — their emotions are so intense that they interfere with their ability to think logically.

To diffuse the situation, you need to accurately reflect their anger. Statements such as, “I can tell you're really angry,” and “I can see this situation has really upset you,” allow us to reflect their anger. This shows that you care about how they feel and that you are respectful of their emotions. When reflecting their anger (and by hearing them out by asking questions such as, “What happened next?”) you will notice that their anger will begin to dissipate. You may see their posture begin to change, shifting from being very tense and upright to relaxed.

It is not until they begin to relax that you can ask them to think about what may make things better for them. Specifically, you might ask, “What can I do to ensure this does not happen again?” It is at this point that the person will be able to think of some ideas.

It is important not to take their anger personally. Instead just realize that angry people need to be fully heard before they will be ready to think about possible solutions.

If you follow the above suggestions, the angry person likely will have dissipated their anger, felt heard and respected by you and feel committed to the plan you have developed with them to ensure the situation does not happen again. Careful implementation of this technique can have positive personal benefits for the angry person as well as the golf course superintendent.

Remembering how to treat others

Good communication is important but of limited consequence if you don't couple it with underlying certain attitudes and values. Psychologists advocate many of the following attitudes, and if you think about it, they all make good common sense. After all, they're just statements about how we'd all like to be treated.

  • Identify and accept uniqueness

    The preceding communication points can help to unveil special traits and qualities of staff. The awareness can lend itself to more effective job assignments, along with a special appreciation for the uniqueness of each one of your employees.

  • Treat your staff with respect

    Respect and accept each person as an important member of the team. Don't measure each staff member's contribution with the same yardstick; value and respect a genuine effort regardless of how large or small it may be.

  • Be genuine

    Being genuine means a person is real and consistent. Strive to treat staff members alike regarding rules, procedures, etc. Inconsistent behavior leads to suspicion and distrust among employees. Wear one hat and practice what you preach!

  • Be caring and empathetic

    Demonstrate an understanding and a concern for members of your staff, on and off the golf course. Working at a golf course is only one aspect of our world. All of our lives can change dramatically due to an unfortunate event. Try and make yourself available in times of need.

  • Value the effort

    Try to create a sense of pride and ownership by acknowledging a “job well done”. Reinforcing each staff member's contribution can lead to the development of a “team” spirit. The team approach should be a goal of any golf course superintendent. This approach gives each member a feeling of unique importance.

No two people are alike. As a result, you cannot apply a single standard when attempting to understand people. Understanding another person requires a great deal of time and energy. It requires the use of good verbal and non-verbal communication skills accompanied by a set of beliefs and values that demonstrate a real caring for another person.

Tom Altmann is superintendent of Greywolf Golf Course (Panorama Mountain Village, British Columbia).


  1. Do not take their anger personally.

  2. Reflect their anger.

  3. Hear them out. Do not try to solve the problem at this point.

  4. After they are calm, ask them, “What can you or I do to prevent the situation from happening again?”

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