5 Communication Mistakes Too Many Leaders Make

This is a guest post by Alison Davis, CEO of Davis and Company, an employee communication firm helping companies improve employee engagement. You can also follow her on Twitter.

 

5 Communication Mistakes

Congratulations! You’ve been promoted or successfully built your business, and now you’re a leader.

But now the hard work is ahead, especially when it comes to communicating with your employees. That’s because almost everything you learned as a manager doesn’t apply any more.

While manager communication focuses on the task at hand, leaders have a broader role: to articulate where the organization is heading, clarify what employees need to do to help the organization succeed, and share progress and accomplishments.

The good news is that when you fulfill your communication role, employees become motivated to do their best work. Employees want to connect with their senior leaders and feel engaged in the company’s strategic direction. Hearing from the boss is a key driver of satisfaction.

But leaders often lack the clarity, time and skills they need to communicate effectively. As a result, they make these 5 communication mistakes:

 

“Communication is the real work of leadership.” -Nitin Nohria

 

Mistake #1: Disappear.

You feel like you spend the whole day in meetings: one-on-one sessions, team meetings, large-group conferences. So it seems you’re always in front of the people who work for you. But if you analyze who you spend time with, you’d realize that you’re visible to only a small percentage of employees. And the larger and more spread out your organization is, the greater the likelihood that many employees rarely see you.

What to do differently: You need a communication plan designed to provide maximum visibility, given your time available. The best practice is to schedule a mix of:

  • An all-hands or town hall meeting at least once a quarter
  • Briefings with managers several times a year
  • Informal sessions (you can call them “coffee chats”) with small groups of employees at least six times a year. These chats are more about hearing from staff members than delivering a message.
  • Presence on electronic channels. For example, if you’ve got an internal social networking platform, participate in online conversations. Or create written or video messages on an intranet site.
  • Showing up and walking around. These informal “sightings”—having lunch with a few people in the cafeteria, touring a new facility—are very valuable for demonstrating that you’re in touch with what’s happening.

 

“Presence is more than just being there.” –Malcolm Forbes

 

Mistake #2: Use “CEO Speak”

One of your key functions as a leader is to think about the long-term strategy. But because you focus so much on the big picture, it’s easy to forget that although employees are smart, they’re also overloaded with information. And employees don’t see issues from the same 35,000-foot perspective leaders do—they’re standing at ground level, trying to focus on what they need to do right now. So when you share information that’s strictly high-level, it doesn’t resonate.

What to do differently: Make your messages simple, tangible and relatable. Ask yourself, “What is the one thing we need employees to know this month, this quarter or this year? To understand? To do differently?” Then focus on providing employees with the core information they need most.

 

Communication Tip: Focus on providing only the core information people need.

 

Mistake #3: Get the timing wrong

One of leaders’ toughest communication challenges is managing timing. If you wait too long to share information, you run the risk that employees already know what you’re now revealing—which affects credibility. But communicating too soon can also be a problem. For example, when leaders have been working behind the scenes on a big change like a reorganization, they start to become impatient, feeling they should tell employees something. So they announce that the company will reorganize soon and more will be shared later. The result? You create anxiety because employees don’t know exactly how they will be affected. It’s better to sit tight until all the details are set.

What to do differently: Focus on how and when employees will be affected, and time communication to meet employees’ need to know, not your need to tell.

 

“Life is about timing.” –Carl Lewis

 

Mistake #4: Do all the talking

Many leaders associate “communicating” with sharing information. As a result, they plan town hall meetings that have 50 minutes of presentation and 10 minutes of Q&A. But when my firm asks employees what they need from leaders, here’s what they say:

  • “More open dialogue with top management.”
  • “I obviously want to hear from leaders, but it’s also important that leaders listen to us.”

What to do differently: One of the most effective ways to create more employee engagement is to communicate in a way that encourages employees to participate. And a key ingredient is the ability of leaders to engage employees in two-way communication.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the least effective way to begin a Q&A session is by saying, “Does anyone have any questions?” This question sets the expectation that only people who don’t understand something that has been shared will speak up.

Instead, try saying this: “Based on what I’ve just told you, what will be the hardest aspects to accomplish?” This approach creates two-way communication in a way that makes people more comfortable about participating.

 

Leadership Tip: Don’t ask for questions. Instead, encourage an immediate two-way communication.

To Speak Fearlessly, Take Yourself Out of the Equation

Gary Genard, PhD, is an actor, communications professor, and speech coach, as well as author of Fearless Speaking: Beat Your Anxiety. Build Your Confidence. Change Your Life..  Gary helps people from all walks of life cope with speech anxiety and stage fright.

We all want to speak fearlessly and with impact.  Influential public speaking is as important today as it’s ever been, despite the digital age.  Personal appearances matter.  Give a great speech and you might just change the world.

So you should try to be excellent, right?

Actually, you should try to be yourself.  There’s a reason you’re the one giving the presentation, usually because of your knowledge and experience.

So how do you get off the merry-go-round of self-regard and forget yourself while embodying your vital message? Here are three ways to do so.

 

Perform an Audience Analysis

Leaders’ egos sometimes set them up for failure as speakers.  That’s especially true if they think, “I know this stuff, so I’ll just get up there and talk about it.”

That’s a speech guaranteed to be shapeless and not very engaging.  Speeches are strategic activities, after all, and need to be thought out and constructed with care.  Your best guide for doing that successfully is an audience analysis.

Ask yourself these questions: What do I need to tell my listeners that they don’t already know? How do they prefer to receive information?  Is there an emotional climate here that I should know about?  What will their objections be to my argument?  And what action do I want them to take?  Put yourself in the world of your listeners, and it will be far easier to reach and move them.

 

Speaking Tip: Put yourself in the world of your listeners.

 

Prepare Less, Practice More

Let’s face it: Most of us are content junkies when it comes to speeches and presentations.  We’re convinced that if we load enough information into the laps of our listeners, they’ll respond the way we want them to.

This type of thinking ignores reality!  If our content could live on its own, we wouldn’t even need to be present—we could just send the information along and say, “Read this. You’ll have all the data you need.”  The truth is, however, audiences need us, as speakers, to put it all into context and, most important, to tell them why it matters to them.

So instead of gathering more and more content like a dung beetle, practice how you’re going to engage your listeners and establish rapport.  You’ll be the speaker who knows how to perform a speech.  That’s the one they’ll listen to.

 

Speaking Tip: Practice how you’re going to establish rapport.

 

Try Your Best to Disappear