As social media and politics comes of age together in this exciting period of political affairs, the fastidiousness of communication is more important than ever, in our era of hair trigger commentators where a false or misunderstood word can create as much disaster as a hurricane we are all fixated on watching live and from every angle the actions, words and mannerisms of all those seeking to convince us they are best placed to lead us. With a camera or recording device in every pocket the inevitable gaffs are captured, reported and replayed over and over again. What I find most alarming in these situations is the suggestion that certain individuals seeking to hold the position of leadership are claiming that their communication skills may be there “allowable weakness” whilst retaining many other alternative attributes of leadership.
Let’s get the position straight from the very beginning, great leaders, whether in politics, business or sports are always great communicators. Effective communication and effective leadership are so closely intertwined that they are interwoven as a single characteristic. You cannot be a great leader and not be a great communicator. Whether you rate Alexander the Great or Asoka as the greatest leader ever each led great nations by the powers of their words and presentation. Both Churchill and Roosevelt overcame physical and emotional challenges to be great leaders, but each were vociferous in their eloquence long before they were recognised for their skills as leaders. At all levels of leadership, leaders need to be skilled communicators at the one to one level, at organisational level and sometimes even on a global scale.
There is no sensible situation I can imagine where a leader could be excused from thinking with clarity, not expressing ideas clearly, or failing to share information understandably with a multitude of audiences. Great Leaders have no difficulty handling the rapid flow of information within all their audiences calmly and effectively. George Bernard Shaw said it with great clarity when he stated, “the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” The reality is that when we look at the failings of leaders in a very high proportion of the time the failure can be directly linked to failure to communicate. With over forty years’ experience in large organisations I can point to three major communication struggles I have seen potential leaders wrestle with and in my time as an executive coach I work with leaders to help them see and understand the need to avoid these obvious yet regularly repeated pitfalls.
Thurber summed it up very well when he said, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.” With the plethora of messages coming at us from all sides and the ever-present fear of fake News it is very difficult to over-communicate yet extremely easy for any prospective leader to under-communicate. Unless you are tired of communicating organisational values and behaviours, vision and direction, no leader should ever believe they have come close to communicating enough. I still recall sitting in staff meetings of a large public body and looking into the eyes of the assembled workforce and seeing only uncertainty and confusion in their faces and realising their leader’s communication was underwhelming them. Yet it took very little to turn that situation around and create a fountain of communication using multi means and vehicles that ensured everyone felt there was a communication thread that suited how they wished to be communicated with. Ironically in that particular situation within a year the only criticism we received was from staff representatives who felt we were attempting to undermine their role as the recipients, interpreters and staff communicators of all organisational information.
2. Contradictory Communication
While under-communication leaves a workforce or team unclear, contradictory communication leaves them deeply frustrated. Contradictory communication occurs when leaders communicate messages that are opposed to one another. I recently visited an area of the UK I was unfamiliar with and whilst on the courtesy bus to the Car Rental Village I set up directions on my phone on Google Maps. However, when I got my vehicle I was very pleased to see it had In-Car Sat Nav and so I didn’t need to use my phone but as the journey commenced I started getting confused directions that had me turning left and then left again causing me to go in circles. I stopped the car and realised I had left my phone directions on and it was playing out alongside the in-Car directions because of the Bluetooth connection I had set up. This innocent Satnav fiasco is a very good example of what goes on in organisations on a daily basis. All of us have been there before, we receive information from one person in the organisation then another person says something different. Some years ago, I was advising a utilities organisation who had company values that they believed defined them in a way that should have made them stand out from their competition. However, in my walking around the organisation I also heard a manager tell his team to rush a job to get it finished before the weekend. You might have “high quality” listed as one of your values but when a front line manager tells employees to rush a job that sacrifices a quality-driven product for an on-time delivery you have contradictory communication which will always result in a detrimental impact to an organisation’s culture. On a personal note I still recall being told by a CEO that I couldn’t get promotion as they “Couldn’t lose me in my current role”, needless to say I left shortly afterwards, Contradictory Communication kills the heart of any organisation and those within it.
3. Misaligned communication
And lastly misaligned communication, more commonly known as signalling, is the third and potentially the worst communication trap awaiting the feckless leader as they bumble and stutter their way through a mediocre career. When the language doesn’t match the reality, people vote with their feet. When actions are not aligned to values, people accept the actions and reject the values.
When advising a large manufacturing plant, they asked me for some “quick wins” that they could implement to show the workforce they were serious about their values and new ways of working. My response was simple, two actions that would signal that the organisations language matched their reality and management’s actions were not just aligned but bolted to their corporate values. The first action was simple, remove all of the reserved parking spaces from the car park so that where you parked was determined by when you arrived into work and not who you were. The second was a little more difficult to persuade but was achieved and delivered significant impact. I recommended the removal of all clocking machines building on the organisations value that it trusted its workforce. Within months of this second change productivity had improve by over 12%. When so called leaders say one thing and live differently, people don’t trust them and more importantly don’t see them as “Leaders”, they are just “Bosses”.
So, I state again Great leaders are always great communicators, but this is about action not acting and content not performance. When asked how can I become a great communicator my response is always the same, Communicate relentlessly, it will never be too much, speak with integrity so what they hear is what they see and finally live up to your values so that your workforce can see that your behaviour and actions communicate a world of information and ensures they believe they are led by a great leader.