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Meaning-making and the language of leadership

Jenny Perkins, head of engagement - Cirrus

In a virtual age where so much of what we do is driven by technology, the ability of leaders to interact at a very human level is paramount. The words we choose, and the way we use them, can help others to make sense of our complex and often confusing world.

Here are five areas of focus to help you communicate with authenticity and engage others.

Leaders have a vital role to play when it comes to meaning-making: helping others to interpret and make sense of what’s happening around us. This role is particularly important right now as we face continued uncertainty.

As a leader, you can be a role model for meaning-making by articulating what is going on around your organisation and helping people to understand what it means for them. You can relate news such as current trading activity to your organisation’s purpose. You can help people at all levels identify how their work contributes to the strategic priorities of the business. In these ways you are making meaning for yourself and for others.

Covid-19 has thrown many leaders into positions they simply were not prepared for, managing teams through an evolving obstacle course of both professional and personal challenges. As we become more reliant on technology, personal communication has become increasingly important. The way leaders communicate with teams, and the words they choose, are vital.

Five things to focus on

  1. Ask people how they really are
    All too often, asking ‘how are you?’ leads to a quick response of ‘fine’ or ‘good’. At the start of any meeting or call, prepare two or three questions to spark conversation, such as ‘what did you get up to at the weekend?’ or ‘how is today going for you?’. Give people the space to open up and talk about themselves in a different context. This will give you an insight into how they might be feeling and coping, especially when so many people are working remotely.
  1. Make sure you mean it.
    Do you believe in what you’re saying? If you don’t, others will feel that.  Think carefully about your key messages. If you and your leadership colleagues don’t believe in what you’re saying, nothing else will work, and it’s better not to start. Discuss your goals in depth and commit as a leadership team to embark on the journey. Support each other so that in turn you can support others.

What is trust? It is about confidence. If we trust someone, we are likely to have confidence in their competence (that they can do what they say), their conduct (that they do what they say they will do) and their communications (that they can be relied on to protect your reputation and keep confidences) (Covey, 2006; Reina and Reina, 2010). Trust is a belief in someone’s integrity, that they will act fairly and warmly, with a balanced view of the situation they are in – essentially, that you are safe in their hands. This leads to confidence in others to act, to jump off a cliff believing that the person holding the rope can and will hold on.

  1. Speak from the heart.
    Be authentic.  Think about your audience. How will what you’re saying land with them? Is the forum for communication the right one?  Test your messages and your style of delivery out with trusted advisors first and don’t risk ‘shooting from the hip’ or letting your passion get in the way of a heartfelt message.  The more strongly you feel about something, the more you need to prepare so that you transmit that passion in a controlled way.

Never underestimate the power of language. You can use words to paint a picture. Every organisation is experiencing change. Illustrate what the future will look like. Help people to understand how you are evolving. What’s different, what’s remaining the same, what matters most?

Repeat your key messages regularly and consistently. Persistence is vital as it takes time and reiteration to make important messages resonate and land well with others. Keep telling the story, adapting your language as necessary to suit different groups of people.  Recognise breakthroughs and celebrate them.

  1. Choose your words carefully.
    Think before you talk, especially if it’s an emotive or potentially confrontational subject. Pause and take a breath. Think about what you’re going to say and consider your audience. What situation might the people you’re addressing be in?

Use language that feels real and authentic, not hypothetical or full of buzzwords. This will help to form a stronger bond of trust and create a safe space for people to open up.

If others trust you, they are more likely to feel that your communications are reliable and that you have integrity. Essentially, they will feel safe in your hands.  The more people trust you and want to follow you, the more diligent they will be, especially in our virtual world.

Building trust is also key to empowering other people to take ownership of continuing to spread your key messages. In an age of agile working, research from Cirrus and Alliance Manchester Business School has found that that it is empowering leadership, in particular, that promotes agile teams who can adapt to change with speed and focus. So as a leader you can encourage others to take responsibility for spreading the word by using accessible and inclusive language that promotes buy-in.

  1. Marry language with action.
    It can be easy to say all the right things, but words are meaningless unless they are followed by behaviour and action. Don’t just talk the talk. Recognise the contribution of others. When you’re not in the same room, the language you use to acknowledge others takes on increasing significance.  Thank people, show appreciation, never expect people to simply just do things. Show respect for the boundaries between work and home, especially while the two have become increasingly blurred.

Think about following up your words in other ways, such as sending a thank you note in the post which will help make your message more personal.

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