I like the title of a John Maxwell book: Everyone Communicates, Few Connect. While communication, at its basest form, is simply the exchange of information, leaders need to be superior at connecting to people in their communication in order to get things done.
If not, let’s just say, Bad things happen. Commitment and accountability breaks down. Problems fester. Staff infighting happens. The community misunderstands our intentions. The vision doesn’t play out as desired. Don’t think of communication as an element of your job as a leader; communication is your job as a leader.
At some point while in your position as leader, you have to use all of these “people skills”. Score yourself on a 1-10 (high) on each one. Then make an action plan to get better at your lowest scores:
- Conflict resolution
I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a business where the staff said, “Stop with all the communication! Just too much!” Just about every employee survey reflects back to leadership how communication is a weak area needing improvement—no matter how hard the leaders are working on it! So, we can keep getting better at it. And while those surveys may truly mean that the team needs literally more information from their leaders about what they are doing and how to do it to management’s expectations, what the surveys may be indicating is a lack of leader listening.
Listening is the foundation for any good employer-employee relationship. To get in the posture of listening, create feedback loops. In other words, make it possible for your followers to share with you their questions, suggestions, concerns and accomplishments. Then give them your undivided attention with eye contact and interested body language. Rephrase what they’ve said until they feel you have understood what they’ve said (or as a receptionist used to say, “Are you picking up what I’m laying down?”). That closes the loop and makes them feel heard. Remember the Stephen Covey habit of highly successful people: Seek first to understand, then be understood. Shoot for 80% of each conversation to be listening, and only 20% talking.
And don’t just listen to staff, but also listen to your customers. They need to feel heard, too, even if it’s just acknowledging their frustration of an unavailable product or a venting person on your social media feed. When your team builds rapport with your customers, there’s a great chance those people will be back again buying your products. And, bonus: customers often hold the key to a breakthrough system that could make the shopping experience better for all.
For you Trekkies: Be a little more Captain Picard (lead by listening) than Captain Kirk (lead by talking).
On the sharing information side of communication, what do employees tend to want to hear from their leaders about?
- The company’s top goals and objectives, for one. Too many priorities means no priorities, and nothing gets laser-focus. Employees need to know where the ship is headed.
- What is a win for them in their role. Everyone needs to know what success looks like so that they can produce more of it. It keeps them accountable to a high standard and consistent expectations.
- Recognition for jobs well-done. Appreciation for good work is fuel in the tanks for a long journey on your team.
- Real-time information critical to job success today. Is inventory arriving? Inspection to prepare for? When are performance reviews? Is the parking lot getting re-paved this week? Schedule changes upcoming? No surprises—especially about changes on the horizon.
You must assure communication cascades down through the organization. Decisions at the top sometimes don’t make it to those on the front line. General managers must receive messages and trickle them to supervisors. Supervisors must pass on information to those who interact with customers. All must be in the loop if it affects their job performance. Before you leave your leadership meeting, someone must ask about every decision: who needs to know, when will they be told (and in what order), and by whom.
Here are five questions to ask at your leadership team meeting or retreat to deal with this important issue:
- What decisive steps can we take to improve our communication?
- How do we know that important information is reaching everyone who would benefit from it?
- Do we have a process that allows employees at all levels to communicate on significant matters?
- How often are we present around the organization, talking to people we normally don’t see?
- If our employees are uncertain about our sincerity, how can we change their perception?
Regular meetings and one-to-ones are often the answer to at least one of those five questions. A too-busy leader or a non-confident leader may do whatever he/she can to get out of leading meetings because they are seen as a waste of time or where uncomfortable topics may come up. Dreading meetings is also, in fact, a potential sign of a lack of trust. But it is essential to gather your team together, at all levels, to be truly inclusive and to get true collaboration going–to get the best answers to problems and opportunities as they arise. I have seen complaints double or even triple when meetings have been regularly cancelled, and the vice-versa: the staff feeling a sense of peace and feeling heard by their supervisors when regular meetings convene.
One-to-ones give a leader the most insight into each employee on the team. There is just something validating about having face time with your boss. It’s a time to connect authentically and relationally, to hear what the person is working on, where an obstacle might need to be removed, and a place to reinforce vision and current priorities. Get them on your calendar every month and take good notes. They will come in handy at performance review time.
Effective leaders are effective at both active listening, sharing information, and collaboration.
If I can come alongside you in your leadership journey in applying these principles of communication, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. And hear how other leaders communicate on my podcast The Tri-Cities Influencer by liking it on Facebook and listening to episodes while you work or exercise.