Leaders continue to assume greater responsibilities and pressures as markets and technologies call for increasingly faster commerce, responses and results. Information overload and business volatility have become the norm, requiring nimble management and staff interconnection. Leadership success depends on a most essential professional skill: strategic communication.
Task completion and organizational achievement demand peak-level communication. A leader’s fundamental role is to be an excellent communicator and a proponent for a communication-based culture. Organizations led by great communicators are far more likely to prosper, especially when faced with onerous challenges.
Unfortunately, too many organizations are hampered by leaders who fail to grasp the power of good communication (or discount its importance). Some leaders consider information to be communication in and of itself, but it’s really just data. Communication is the ability to convey information strategically—the very core of leadership, affirms executive coach Dianna Booher in Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017).
Leaders develop and use communication—a soft skill—to work with others, recognizing that success relies on unity and collaboration. When combined with the traditional hard skills of quantitative analysis and decision-making, communication rounds out a leader’s ability to bring people together and achieve high performance. A lack of communication causes multiple obstructions, debilitations and failures, as Booher notes:
In survey after survey, managers report that their team understands organizational goals and initiatives. Yet team members themselves say they do not. In a recent worldwide Gallup poll among 550 organizations and 2.2 million employees, only 50 percent of employees "strongly agreed" that they knew what was expected of them at work. Obviously, there's a disconnection here.
Leaders must therefore master three essential skills to avoid these disconnects:
- Communicating deliberately
- Communicating interpersonally
- Communicating by adding value
Giving your people the information they need to complete their tasks and contribute to your organization requires thoughtful and appropriate communication. Assuming that people are getting the information they need or can figure things out for themselves yields unpleasant surprises. Information left unmanaged does irreparable harm. Misunderstandings, confusion, misrepresentation and assumption distort information.
Without accurate and timely information, your people will end up doing the wrong things at the wrong times for the wrong reasons, notes communication expert Dean Brenner in "The True Cost of Poor Communication" (Forbes, November 2017). Good communication requires a deliberate and thorough approach, coupled with significant forethought and diligence.
Communication’s foundation is built on three components:
Clarity. Information—be it instruction, updates, plans, orders or analysis—benefits everyone only if it’s clear and concise. Asking questions and seeking feedback affirm understanding. Use language geared for your audience to enhance clarity. Present information in a decipherable order and tempo so people can grasp it immediately and avoid confusion. Be clear about expectations and requirements. Set a well-defined, purposeful standard that points everyone in the right direction.
Specificity. Information should be specific enough to be understood, but not over-explained or expressed condescendingly. Convey challenging topics with unambiguous descriptions and explanations. Avoid using generalities on detailed subjects to prevent assumptions and misunderstandings. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes to see if information makes sense and will be meaningful later.
Relevancy. Leaders must be relevant communicators, Booher confirms. Give people information that pertains to them and what they’re being asked to do. Impertinent data may be interesting, but it dilutes the mission and makes staff question your priorities. Timeliness is critical, so share information as soon as your people can benefit from it. Don’t hold it to benefit yourself.
Also keep the following in mind:
- Forthright and truthful leaders convey information their people can count on, carrying weight and reliability.
- When leaders hedge or dance around a topic, people question information’s validity and their boss’s intentions.
- When people know their leaders have integrity, they respond commensurately. A leader’s honest communication is rewarded with attention and allegiance.
Employees crave more than basic information; they want to feel valued enough to receive it. They respond optimally when they know their leaders appreciate their engagement, involvement and commitment. When leaders communicate interpersonally, workers feel cared for and connectedness increases.
Practice considerate communication by attempting to understand others’ perspectives. Use honoring and appreciative language, and avoid accusatory or resentful approaches. Strive for face-to-face communication that builds relationships. Indirect connections like the telephone, email or social media are often necessary, but none can compete with an in-person dialogue. Let people see how much you care when you talk with them.
Active listening is a vital communication skill. Many leaders focus only on what they want to say and deprioritize what others say to them. This damages communication and the trust leaders need to build with their people. Good communicators show they want to understand what others have to say. They ask questions and repeat back what they’ve heard for confirmation. Leaders who show transparency by admitting they may not initially grasp something gain trust and make greater relational progress.
Good communicators also want to confirm their audience understands the information they’re given. Ask open-ended questions to ensure you’ve succeeded, Booher suggests. Simply asking if you were understood isn’t always adequate. Ask listeners for specific feedback: what they think about your information or the chance to voice alternative ideas.
Tell stories to communicate ideas and connect with people. Everyone loves to hear personal experiences, which you can use to illustrate concepts or offer analogies. Perhaps the best way to personalize your connections and enhance your communications is to be thankful for people’s attention—or as Booher puts it, give people kudos whenever possible. Thank them out of habit, and show them how much you value communicating with them.
Communicating by Adding Value
Transferring job-related information is a key leadership responsibility. While content is certainly important, the manner in which you convey it is equally critical. Our communications should enrich relationships by making people feel more valued and able to contribute.
Leaders who provide information with confidence enhance trust and promote self-assurance. They achieve a sense of accountability and believability, which boosts people’s trust and improves communication efforts. Successful leaders can build a culture of trust, where communication is central to operations and heightens accountability.
- Demonstrate that you value your people by communicating with appropriate timing. Determine the best time to have difficult conversations, and anticipate how people will receive them.
- Always account for your audience’s perspective to ensure effective communication. Your people should sense that you’re fair and considerate, which ultimately strengthens relationships.
- Never overlook an opportunity to learn what people think or how they feel. People feel valued and appreciated when they’re encouraged to share their personal positions on issues. Inclusive discussions help them rethink their views and forge deeper understandings.
- Ask open-ended questions that call for thoughtful responses—a technique that builds trust and sets the stage for clarifying expectations, delineating action items and achieving goals.
- Measure communication success by examining whether follow-up activities match fair and reasonable expectations. Achieved goals give people a greater sense of ownership, purpose and value, which positively impacts your culture.
Your degree of positivity is perhaps the most vital value-adding aspect of communication. As you look for ways to inspire your people, remember that encouragement is a great motivator, and positivity is contagious.