It’s an open secret leaders are often poor communicators. “I’m not a people person” or “I’m not good with words” are often cited as reasons for avoiding conversations with staff and colleagues. Even though it’s well documented employee performance increases when leaders give staff feedback, many in authority choose not to put in the extra effort. Why is this?
In my experience, unrealistic expectations are partly to blame. Rather than telling leaders who don’t talk to their staff to have more frequent conversations, it’s time to look at what’s stopping these professionals from communicating in the first place.
In fact, let’s call a do over.
Here’s a look at the three beliefs that make it difficult for leaders to succeed, and three new approaches to try instead.
Belief 1: Leaders need to be “effective communicators”
Unless you serve as a spokesperson for your organization or are a member of the C-Suite, it’s not actually necessary for a leader to be an “effective communicator”. Communication is mistakenly used as a catch-all term that consists of three different styles of conversation: talking, conversing and communicating. These words are used interchangeably, but in the workplace they are actually quite different. Talking does not require an agenda or a call to action. It’s a free flowing exchange of ideas such as discussing the weather. Conversing, on the other hand, is the act of discussing and seeking feedback on a particular topic with the end goal of achieving consensus.
So what is communicating? It’s the art of persuading someone to accept your idea or key message. It may or may not include a two-way dialogue as a means to prove the merit of your argument, which is different than conversing when you actively seek another person’s point of view. Communicating is what I am doing right now by inviting you to see my perspective in this blog.
Do-Over: Be an engaged conversationalist
The job of a leader is to maximize each conversation rather than rush to get it over with. Staff are hardwired to need the neurological high that comes from verbal discourse. It’s enough, and far more realistic, for professionals to be skilled at conversing with their staff and colleagues.
Belief 2: Leaders just need to ‘tell it like it is’
There’s a general expectation that adults, and leaders in particular, should be able to communicate with one another. But the reality is “Although we are born with the gift of language, research shows that we are surprisingly unskilled when it comes to communicating with others,” says Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman, authors of Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy. Sure, most leaders learn communication skills through life experience, but this can also cement their fear of talking to employees. Ellen Taaffe, a clinical professor of leadership at the Kellogg School, says “most people are afraid to give feedback because they don’t want to come off as mean, they don’t want to be disliked and they certainly don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.” Being a professional does not erase a person’s fear of causing social pain for someone else. Let’s encourage a leader to use these feelings to become a more empathetic conversationalist.
Do-Over: Validate first, converse second
Everyone wins if a leader can speak in a way that is clear and kind. There are only ever three ways to respond when someone speaks to you – defend, dismiss or validate. It’s tempting to try and help solve a situation, offer an opinion or ask for more detail. However, leaders are well served to validate what an employee says before commenting. Imagine a team member came in to share an idea they are excited about. How do you think it would go over to lead with, “I can tell you are really excited about this idea. Let’s hear it.” Instead of, “Sure I have a few minutes.” This approach will probably feel unnatural at first but the payoff will be worth it.
Belief 3: Leaders need to “get over their fear”
Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, has proven humans become passive when they experience failure and feel like they have no control. This can lead to a constant expectation of failure and the development of “learned helplessness.” It’s no wonder some leaders dread having a conversation if their experience has told them it’s not likely to go well. But avoiding conversations with staff and colleagues is not a viable solution. A better game plan is to feel prepared for the dialogue that might come your way.
Do-Over: Conversation is a verbal report card
The fear of saying the wrong thing is greatly reduced when a leader prepares for a conversation. Professional communicators are taught to follow a three step plan before ever saying a peep. The process – think, plan, write (or say) – gives the mind time to be creative, make unlikely connections and become comfortable with what is going to be said. Look at it this way – what’s the more effective way to pack for a vacation: a) make a list and pack accordingly or b) close your eyes and throw things in a suitcase and hope you did a good job? Work conversations require preparation. This may seem hokey but five minutes to collect your thoughts and jot out a few notes can make a world of difference. It’s also worth remembering everything a leader says will be heard by an employee as a verbal report card. Staff are likely to analyze the conversation and decode any hidden meanings. Be thoughtful about your word choice and ask more questions than you make statements.
Changing your communication style takes time. Here’s one shortcut to get you started: observe your colleagues’ conversations and notice their good (and not so good) habits. Tune into what’s being said around you and observe what’s successful. This will help your brain want to replicate what’s proven to work.
To learn more about how to effectively listen to your workforce, download this white paper: Taking the Pulse of Employee Engagement.
And if you’re looking to improve the employee experience for your team, check out another great read covering Personalization: The Missing Link in Employee Experience.
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About the Author
Janet Hueglin Hartwick is a communication coach, trainer and speaker. She is the founder of Conversations At Work, an evidence-based communications training program that helps leaders manage today’s emotionally engaged workforce. Janet is also is also the President of Soilleirich Communications Group, a consultancy that specializes in corporate and employee communications.