Leadership Barometer 77 Optimize Communication

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. These are not good for diagnosing problems or specifying corrective action, but they can tell you where you stand quickly. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Optimize communication

All of us communicate all of the time. When you add the body language to what we say, there is a steady stream of communication all day, every day, so why does communication nearly always surface in the top two of every employee satisfaction survey as the most significant problem facing an organization?

The sad fact is that most leaders are not that good at communicating, even though they work very hard at it. Let’s first look at the problem form two vantage points.

The leader feels nearly overwhelmed with the need to communicate. In fact, the leader is communicating from the moment she logs on in the morning until she turns out the light exhausted at the end of the day.

All work is a steady stream of explaining what is happening, reinforcing good work, explaining how poor attitudes are not helping, discussing the new product roll out, etc. The challenge is compounded in recent times when a greater percentage of the work force is working remotely. Leaders need to redouble their efforts to communicate and use technology to be sure all people are informed, even if they are working remotely.

So, it is frustrating when people feedback that there is “never any communication” going on. Wow, what a slap in the face. Sometimes the opposite happens. There are a lot more emails in the COVID World. When people get too many emails, they can’t keep up and feel pestered or nagged.

From the worker’s perspective, the signals that are coming through are not consistent and often incomprehensible. They long for information in a format and frequency that computes to them. The messages workers hear are not the same ones sent by the leader.

There are frequent surprises where a vacuum in communication is followed by a “gotcha” announcement or people doing the wrong things.

The battle for excellent communication rages every day in every organization. Let’s take a look at some of the root causes of poor downward communication to uncover some opportunities for improvement.

1. Frequency 

The span between communication on key issues is trickier than meets the eye. The old rule of “the more the merrier” is really not the best policy.

When you constantly say the same message in the same format, eventually people tune it out, and you might better not have said anything because nobody is listening anymore.

Yet, the other extreme is worse, if your touch points are so infrequent that people have forgotten the context of the message, then they will listen and hear, but not understand. So, what is the antidote?

How do leaders find the sweet spot? You need to let feedback from people be the frequency control on your outgoing communication. Most of this feedback comes in body language – often in group settings in live or remote interfaces.

2. Boring Message 

I have seen really good leaders who tend to drone on in a monotone style that puts everybody to sleep. All the information is given, but everyone is zzzz’d out, so there is poor communication.

The best way to avoid this is to watch for the MEGO effect (short for My Eyes Glaze Over). When people get that look, (which is harder to detect accurately in a remote world), you need to stop and ask a question. Get the audience back with you.

Change the cadence, even use 5 seconds of silence to get the group conscious again. Get people up on their feet or engaged in a question for discussion among small groups. In virtual meetings, use the breakout rooms to accomplish this. The energy needs to be on a conscious level for people to grasp meaning.

3. Not What I Said 

Some people hear what they think you are going to say, even if you say something else. Their predisposition leaves them incapable of absorbing the actual words and meaning.

It reminds me of the old Archie Bunker quote, when he says to his wife, Edith, “The reason you don’t understand me, is because I’m talking in English and you’re listening in Dingbat!”

During any presentation, test with your audience if you are getting through the fog. If they are not with you, stop talking.

4. Too Complex 

In an effort to be complete with communications, many leaders are their own worst enemy. People can only absorb and internalize so much information at one time. Exactly how the information is conveyed has a lot to do with how much can be presented at any one time.

Make sure each communication effort has only two or three key points and these are repeated at least three times in the presentation.

Test afterward if people really understood those three key points. Use illustrations when possible and consider the different learning styles of your audience and where they are located.

5. Management Speak 

Leaders often talk in a kind of language I call “management speak.” They need to understand that the average shop floor person does not relate to ROI or references to Maslow.

Make sure your communication is on a level where people can readily grasp the message. However, be very careful to not “talk down” to people on the shop floor.

They are not dumb; in fact they are incredibly smart. They just use different words, and you need to use their language as much as possible when communicating messages to them.

Resist the temptation to “dumb down the message” so they can understand. Instead think of using the right language.

6. Shifting Messages 

It is not a static world, so a valid message on Wednesday may be the wrong one on Friday. The problem here is that leaders are cognizant of what transpired as the current message morphed into something different.

Unfortunately, the shop floor people are not up to speed on the shifting sands. Remote workers may have missed a key change that impacts everything. All they experience is a confusing message that is not consistent.

Actually, this problem is more pervasive than leaders recognize, and it is a key reason why there is such a disconnect.

The antidote is for leaders to be extremely cognizant of any small change in the message over time. Make sure you bring all people up to speed on the background for the change if you want them to grasp the true meaning.

7. Electronic Communication 

Leaders have shifted to a much higher percentage of communication via online means. It is not in the scope of this short article to go over all of the gremlins in this mode of communication.

It took me 300 pages in a book (“Understanding e-Body Language – Building Trust Online“) to describe how leaders fail to navigate the minefield of successful online communication.

Suffice to say this is an area of great peril. Unfortunately, most leaders think there is little difference between communicating face to face versus online. There is a huge difference (I outline 8 major differences in my book). An example may help here.

Most people view an email like a conversation. You have information coming in, you process it, and then send information out. Just a conversation, right? Wrong!

When we talk to people face to face, we are constantly modifying the message, cadence, body language, and the words based on the real-time feedback we are getting.

Online, there is no feedback while the message is being sent. It is all blind, and we have no way to correct things if we are off track. Thinking of online communication like a conversation is extremely dangerous. In Zoom or other remote platforms, it is far more difficult to read the body language of your audience.

8. Communicating at the Head Level

Good communication does not occur at the “head” level. Sure, we use the mouth to speak, the ears to hear, the brain to interpret, the eyes to see, etc.

Real communication is deep in the gut and the heart. When you have internalized the message fully, it goes well into the body.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have communicated with someone because you have talked and they appear to have heard it. Verify what was taken in at the gut level.

Those are just 8 ways of improving communication. Actually there are hundreds of them, this article only scratches the surface. But, if you focus on these few important considerations, you can really improve your communications with people at work.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.

Leave a Reply