Why Leader’s Communications Don’t Create Connection and What To Do About It

by May 13, 2020Leadership

Even though most leaders believe they are genuine, work hard on their communications and use every conceivable means to communicate, some struggle to connect in ways that matter.

They may expend great energy, time, and invest a lot of money to sculpt, wordsmith, and stylize their messages, yet be frustrated when the intended message is distorted or rejected outright. A major cause of communication problems is not what the leader says or how they say it, rather it’s too much focus on the leader and too little on those who will receive the message.

Here are a few things leaders can do to make their efforts more effective, immediately.

First, listen and watch. This means giving up the expert role to allow others to tell you what is going on. The more a leader can suspend their need to respond, answer, explain, soothe or solve, the more they will learn. One leader, responsible for hundreds of locations in a Fortune 500 restaurant company, visited dozens of them once he was named president of a division. Even though he was already with the company, he put himself in a position to learn in a new way. He traveled to dozens of locations, walked around, talked to people who did every job, asked questions, ate meals with employees and learned. He didn’t solve, opine, or give speeches, but he was communicating an important message – he was interested in every role and the people who worked most closely with customers.

This way of experiential learning is essential if leaders are to connect with people. Leaders who are seen only as remote figures have less credibility and impact. It isn’t necessary for every person to have a one-on-one conversation with a leader, but it is important that they have evidence that the leader has had more than ceremonial contact with people at different levels. This supports trust that the leader really knows what is going on.

Even though most leaders believe they are genuine, work hard on their communications and use every conceivable means to communicate, some struggle to connect in ways that matter. Click To Tweet

Second, don’t rely on old news or the usual suspects. While it’s not uncommon for a new leader to explore, to show curiosity, to ask questions and get to know people, it is equally common for leaders to fall into the “I already know” trap. Why? It is much more difficult to bring a fresh mind to situations when we have a lot of experience. After a time, leaders have massive amounts of information from multiple sources which can, paradoxically and quite unwittingly, narrow their perspective. Further, leaders develop relationships with colleagues and rely on particular individuals for certain things. This saves a lot of time but may become stale, something that is remedied by getting out of the office and inviting people to share their ideas, concerns, and ask questions.

Third, make room for what makes you uncomfortable. Failure isn’t often fatal nor is fear, though both are unpleasant. A leader who shuts people down will lose access to information because they lose connection. When people see that questions or expressions of concern lead to punishment, they get the message – don’t speak up. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, has done compelling research on this topic, summarized in her book,  The Fearless Organization.

It is valuable for leaders to practice being non-defensive to others’ concerns but even more so for them to tolerate their own fears. Leaders who can’t accept and manage their own discomfort will be limited in their ability to make room for others to express fear, uncertainty, or to question the leader. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, massive amounts of advice to leaders falsely dichotomizes negative emotion and positivity. These are not mutually exclusive nor opposites but sometimes leaders beat the drum of optimism in a way that says, “keep your worries to yourself, lest you be thought unstable.” When people live in the shadows, they lose connection, energy, and the very optimism and long-term positive view they may have had to begin with.

Leaders who inspire confidence in others without ignoring the very real disruption caused by this pandemic, create more opportunities for connections that are good for people, communities and businesses as well as themselves.