With ad hoc conversation off the agenda during the pandemic, organizations are depending on thoughtful, insightful leadership communication more than ever. We explore how you can get it right.
What is leadership communication?
Leadership communication is set apart by the heavy lifting it has to do. Leaders need to inspire, persuade, build relationships, share ideas, transmit company values and make things happen in their organizations. And they need to do this with lots of different audiences - investors, employees, customers, the media, officials - not just their teams.
It’s a constant process. Writing in Forbes magazine, leadership strategist Glenn Llopis puts it this way: “Leadership is not about telling others what to do, but rather maximizing the full potential of people by being intently engaged.”
When we spoke with executive coach Wendy Rose to explore this in more detail, she told us: “If you think of anything that happens in an organization - appraisals, vision statements, brainstorming, collaboration, negotiating, influencing - it's all about communication. It's as if communication is a signal that goes from one island to the next. That's why it's so important. Nothing happens without communication, whether it's written or verbal. It's crucial.”
So it’s not surprising that communication skills are considered a core leadership essential. But that doesn’t mean communication skills come naturally to every leader. In fact, it’s an area of concern, especially further down the leadership hierarchy with 69% of managers saying they’re not comfortable communicating with employees.
So it’s not surprising that communication skills are considered a core leadership essential. But that doesn’t mean communication skills come naturally to every leader. In fact, it’s an area of concern, especially further down the leadership hierarchy with 69% of managers1 saying they’re not comfortable communicating with employees.
If that sounds familiar, it’s probably an area you should focus on improving - and we’ll talk about some top tips to help you a little later in this post. But first, let’s take a look at some of the different types of leadership communication.
What are the different types of leadership communication?
Leadership communication isn't just about talking while others listen. You should consider:
- Non-verbal communication. Body language is hugely important in communication, and not just the obvious things like crossing your arms or avoiding eye contact. “We have micro signals that happen in our faces the whole time, which we're not aware of,” Wendy explains. “They give masses away about how we're feeling and what we're thinking.”
- Verbal communication. Clarity of message, making the right language choices for your audience, and even how fast you speak will have an impact on how effectively you communicate
- Listening. Leaders need to understand what’s going on with their people, their organization and the wider world. To do this, you need excellent listening skills
- Written communication. Can you get your messages across? Are you clear in what you’re asking people to do? Are you persuasive?
- Behavior. People expect business leaders to be shining examples of their organizational values and model the behavior they want to see from others. This means all your actions in the workplace are a form of communication
Why are leadership communication skills so important?
Effective communication plays a crucial role in:
- Building trust: leaders who communicate openly, are accountable, and listen to their employees can build a culture where people feel better able to share ideas and opinions
- Sharing values and vision: an organization’s vision and values statement can’t just be a page on the company intranet. People look to leaders to constantly communicate what a company stands for and where it’s going
- Inspiring others: leaders have a key role in making people believe in the organization and what they can achieve within it
- Influencing and persuading: simply telling someone to do something often doesn't work. Leaders need skills in negotiation and persuasion to bring people over to their point of view
- Improving employee engagement: communicating the organization's values, keeping people informed, and building confidence and trust are all ways in which leaders can keep employees on side
- Creating successful teams: clear, open communication will help build the working relationships teams need to succeed. Plus, leaders will be able to show people what good communication looks like - and help teams to improve their communication skills
- Collaborating with others: modern leaders don't rely on a top-down approach. Instead, they try to bring together different teams offering different perspectives to achieve organizational goals. Being a good persuader, listener and negotiator is essential for breaking down organizational silos
- Navigating change: employees will look to leaders to be a constant, trustworthy source of information in times of organizational change. Leaders also have to show empathy in these types of situations. Wendy says leaders who communicated well during the pandemic were those who understood people’s emotional reactions to the situation, including stress and anxiety.
“The leaders who got this right knew that there was a massive emotional component to what was going on,” she says. “It wasn’t just a question of issuing instructions or directions. It was a question of meeting people emotionally where they were, and helping people feel less anxious, before actions could take place.”
What happens if leadership communication skills fall short?
Communicating effectively isn't always easy. And several things can trip leaders up - lack of preparation, delegating too much to others and overusing email, to name but a few.
But the main communication pitfall facing leaders - or anyone wanting to get their messages across - is failing to consider the purpose of what you’re doing. “It’s very important to think about the end result of a communication,” says Wendy Jones.
“For a leader, it’s all about getting people to do things. If you want someone to do something, it’s emotional. People have to feel something in order to do something."
So it’s about whether you’re thinking about impact.
“People make a mistake thinking that when they’re communicating, it’s all about transmission. It’s not. Communication is always in two halves. It’s about the transmission and it’s about the reception.”
Poor leadership communication can have far-reaching effects. It can damage your hard built workplace culture for one. Thirty-one percent of employers say that poor communication results in low morale, according to a survey by Rallyware.2 In turn that can affect levels of trust - which is an essential ingredient in hybrid or frontline teams.
And any sense that leaders are not acting transparently or being accountable, can ultimately lead to poor outcomes, misunderstandings or a failure to act.
Effective leadership communication styles: 7 top tips
Every business leader can find new ways to improve how they communicate. Here are 7 tips to get started:
Know what you’re aiming for
Always have the result you want to achieve from your communication clear in your mind. This will help you frame it in the right way
Imagine you’re the recipient
What would your reaction be if you were on the receiving end of a message, email or conversation? How would the messages you’re trying to give land with you?
Use the right tools at the right time
With so many choices of tools it can be difficult to know what’s appropriate. Video conferencing, for example, can be extremely useful in situations where you need to see each other, but sometimes a voice call can be more revealing
"Voice communication is very intimate,” says Wendy Rose. “I can really tune into the breathing, the intonation, and the choice of language becomes so much more laden with information.”
And be honest with yourself. Are you hiding behind email when you should be talking? Are you tying people up in unnecessary meetings?
If people feel anxious or stressed, it's difficult for them to think logically. In some situations, you might need to ease worries and fears before you give instructions
Walk the walk
People will be looking at what you do as well as what you say. Your behavior is the most potent message you send
More than a third of employees (36%) in a survey by People Element said they were dissatisfied with the voice they had within their organization. And they were least favorable about leadership listening to and caring about their concerns. Active listening is a crucial leadership skill
Eight-four percent of workers don't feel they get enough information from leaders.3 Don’t feel like you’ve got your message across and can sit back. Leadership communication is a job that never stops