When Leaders Suck at Communications

Recent months have put many executives into the spotlight at some point to communicate with their employees, customers and others. Some have risen to the occasion to inform, engage and inspire. Many more have, well, not done those things. The sad truth is many executives are really not very good communicators.

Three reasons for poor leader communications

Studies show that executives spend most of their days in meetings, on calls, making presentations, reading stuff and writing stuff – in other words communicating. So why are so many of them so bad at it? Three reasons come to mind: First, most of them just don’t view it as a strategic imperative. Communications, for these leaders, are a tactical means to an end but not a strategic tool.

Even where they may see communications as strategic, the second reason they don’t do it well is that they don’t do it often enough. Far too many senior executives either stay silent when they shouldn’t or, worse, delegate the whole thing to someone else.

The third reason is they are just not that good at it. This lack of skill, of course, means we have Reluctant Communicators who are afraid of looking bad and, because they don’t work at communicating, they don’t improve. This creates a vicious cycle of delegating to others which in turn signals that communications skills aren’t valued, and neither is the strategic impact of communicating.

If your organization’s leadership is communicating sporadically and randomly, chances are you have poor communicators at the top of the house. Another sure sign is that (ironically) there is no budget for employee communications, which is too bad because that more or less guarantees that there is nobody working to build strong leadership communications skills or programs.

Good communication is not rocket surgery

What does it look like when executives are actually doing a good job of communicating? First, there is an explicit acknowledgement that communication is necessary and part of the larger organizational strategy. Once that mindset shift is in place, we can focus on building some basic skills such as using framing, creating narratives and telling stories to help employees understand context and importance.

Moving on from there, we might focus on rhetorical skills such as tone, body language, incorporating metaphors, or adapting messages for different audiences. Next up we would want to work on interpersonal skills such as listening (for real), empathy, making connections and negotiation. Unfortunately, so many communication skills programs focus on the superficial stuff like what to wear and how to use PowerPoint.

How organizations perpetuate sucky communications skills

A lack of skill is an easy problem to solve; what’s challenging is making the case to invest in the skills at all. I’ve heard every excuse over the years, the chief one being executives just haven’t got the time to work on their communications skills. To which I call bullshit because they spend at least 70 percent of their day communicating, so there is ample opportunity to try out some new stuff now and again.

I’ve certainly seen the opposite problem, which is a belief in their personal awesomeness as a communicator. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect in action – basically an inability to see one’s own incompetence – bolstered by a lack of honest feedback and, importantly, little understanding of how communications connects to other important stuff like culture, talent and productivity.

Why we need to invest in executive communication skills

Beyond the erosion of personal credibility, when leaders suck at communicating, they throw trust under the organizational bus. At the end of the day, trust is what executives produce day in and day out. Where trust is high, so too is productivity, innovation, employee and customer retention and a shared sense of belonging.

In fact, this year’s Deloitte Human Capital Trends report shows us that 93 percent of organizations connect a strong sense of belonging to overall performance, and for 79 percent it’s a priority for 2020 and 2021. Belonging is driven by connection and contribution, which in turn is determined by culture, leadership behaviour, personal relationships and organizational purpose.

Yet getting to a place where employees feel comfortable and connected and can clearly see how their role contributes to the larger mandate requires – say it with me – executives who can communicate really, really well.

Get that emperor a bathrobe

It takes a great deal of self-awareness and courage for an executive to put up their hand and admit they are a sucky communicator. That’s why we have communications professionals. Our job is to gently flag areas for improvement and quietly nudge our executives along the road to competence or at least away from malpractice. Here are few tips to get that conversation rolling.Ask your executives to talk about their favourite TedTalks. Spend some time analyzing why they find them inspiring and how they would like to emulate the speakers

  • Check in with your HR friends to see if communications skills are included in your leadership competency definitions – get them added if they aren’t
  • Review a recent employee communication effort  — a town hall recording or perhaps an email and find one or two things to do differently next time
  • Clearly connect all communications activities to an organizational goal – culture, performance, etc.
  • Bring in an outside consultant to do an audit and make recommendations for skills development

For more ideas on why executives suck at communications and what to do about it, check out the latest Swear Jar Podcast.

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