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June 17, 2024

Leadership Communication: 6 Skills That the Best Leaders Apply

Leadership communication

The best leaders are exceptional communicators. That’s always been true and even more critical now, at a time when employees and other stakeholders are bombarded with information and often look to their leaders for what’s most important.

Leaders who earn the trust and support of their team get there because they believe in the power of great communication in all forms – speeches and presentations, team meetings, one-on-one check-ins, town halls, and written communication.

On top of that, exceptional leaders know how to listen better so they’re not just sharing information but learning more about where employees are, what questions they have, and the support they need to be more engaged. We call that “knowing your audience,” and it’s a vital part of best-in-class leadership communication. As we all know, when employees feel heard and respected, they’re far more likely to feel pride in the organization. They also better understand their role and are even more excited to play a part in the company’s success.

In this blog, we’ll share six essential skills that we’ve seen help many leaders become exceptional communicators who achieve impressive results for their organizations and their teams.

What Is Leadership Communication?

Leadership communication is a special form of communication used by leaders at all levels to educate and inspire employees and other stakeholders about what the company stands for, what its priorities are, and the actions employees need to take to move the business forward.

I’ve also come to define extraordinary leadership communication as “Heart First” leadership, bringing empathy, humanity, and authenticity into all your interactions with employees. We saw this firsthand during the pandemic, when leaders tended to shed the masks and be more real with employees, knowing what an incredibly challenging and historic time we were all living through.

Many leaders realized in that moment that they became better versions of themselves during that time, spent more time trying to relate with their teams, and showed empathy and humanity. The best leaders are working to carry through those lessons in their leadership and communication style today, knowing just how much employees are searching for real connections and meaning in their work lives.

How Does the Quality of Leadership Communication Impact the Business?

In my decades working with top leaders across a wide range of industries, I often see leaders overestimate their skill in leadership communication. They may think they’re doing great, but employees are less than impressed. When employee survey tools, focus groups, and other options for measuring communication effectiveness roll in, leaders are often surprised by lower scores in some categories.

Recent research underscores this issue. According to a Stanford University study published in the Academy of Management Journal, only about 25% of employees say their leader’s communication aligns with their expectations and needs. The same study found that leaders are 10 times more likely to be criticized for under-communicating than over-communicating (unless the leaders are seen to be micromanaging).

Additionally, the study found that leaders who under-communicate are viewed by employees as less empathetic, which in turn impacted the employees’ perceptions of the leader’s overall ability. Employees saw the under-communication as a signal of three key problems in the leader, including:

  • Little understanding of employees’ communication preferences
  • Little motivation to help employees
  • Lack of initiative in interacting with employees, which signaled poor empathy

“More than just about any other leadership skill, people are fiercely criticized for poor communication,” said Francis J. Flynn, one of the study’s authors and a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “The higher up you get, the more brutal that criticism becomes.”

Even when leaders seem to be sympathetic to the need for better communication, I sometimes hear leaders pay lip service to the daily work of communicating better. They say they value it, but when stress and competing demands hit their plate, they can forget how important it is to communicate all their plans thoughtfully and effectively. In the busy worlds we all live in, this is understandable.

I’ve made that mistake in raising my two daughters as well. When I’m stressed, it’s much more difficult for me to be present and listen empathetically to them. I sometimes find myself in “tell” mode, meaning “you need to do this,” instead of listening and then helping them come up with a solution that’s agreeable.

The same dynamic occurs when we dismiss employees or only listen to them half-heartedly. Exceptional communication in leadership – to the best of our abilities – needs to be an “all-in” practice.

All of this evidence points to a very strong business case for viewing leadership communication as far from a “soft skill.” Especially post-pandemic, I consider it not soft but an “essential skill.”

Here’s just a snapshot of the mounting evidence that connects high-quality leadership communication to business results:

  • According to a recent EY U.S. Consulting survey of more than 1,000 employed U.S. workers, empathy has a big impact in the workplace. The survey found workers feel that mutual empathy between company leaders and employees leads to increased efficiency (88%), creativity (87%), job satisfaction (87%), idea sharing (86%), innovation (85%), and even company revenue (83%).

Research shows that employees want their employers to be trustworthy figures who earn trust through genuine communication. According to a recent Edelman Trust Barometer study, 65% of employees cited “my employer” as the most believable source of information they receive. Further, more than 8 in 10 respondents want their CEOs to be the face of change on important public issues.

6 Top Skills for Exceptional Leadership Communication

In our work with leaders, we’ve identified six essential leadership communication skills that set leaders apart. Of course, no leader is perfect and applies all of these as consistently as they’d like, but all of these skills are critical to hone. When leaders genuinely commit to these skills, they build the kind of culture that employees seek out and embrace.

1. Keep the fundamentals top of mind

There are fundamental approaches that all exceptional leaders apply to every communication. Here are some of the most essential skills to remember:

  1. Constantly communicate the “why” to make action meaningful. Always answer the two key questions that employees commonly have in mind, especially when there’s a change in direction: “What’s in it for me?” and “Why should I care?”
  2. Always speak the truth, without exception.
  3. Share the “big picture” first. It helps everyone start with the same base of knowledge.
  4. Cover the basic questions employees have first to ensure your communication is complete – Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.
  5. Share what needs to be done, but help employees achieve it. You can do that by talking less, asking more questions, and inviting more employee input. Employees want to have their opinions heard. People are more likely to support what they help create so ensure that you’re not presenting a lot of monologues and focus on real, two-way conversations.
  6. If you don’t know, say so. There’s no need to beat around the bush or, worse yet, “spin” the messages. Employees want to know what’s happening and why in a direct way. Tell them what you know when you know it. Many leaders wait too long after getting key information to communicate it.

2. Communicate that you genuinely care

Employees want to know what you have to say, but more importantly, who you are and what you stand for. People are more apt to trust you as a leader when your actions match your words, and when you lead by example.

We saw this point come through loud and clear, through research we recently conducted with The Harris Poll designed to gauge the extent to which American workers are thriving, burned out, or ambivalent and what drives those emotional states.

One of the biggest takeaways from our research was this: 76% of employees and 63% of managers – their leaders – report feeling burned out or ambivalent in their current position. Yet managers aren’t recognizing just how overwhelmed their employees feel, with 89% saying their employees are thriving compared to the actual thriving figure of 24% – a more than 3-to-1 discrepancy.

In other words, managers aren’t picking up the signs of burnout among their teams, which means employees aren’t feeling heard and aren't getting the support they need. As a result, many are considering dusting off their resumes or opting to just get by day-to-day.

On the other hand, when a manager shows that he or she is “invested in an employee’s success” – often through stronger communication – employees tend to thrive.

Thriving employees strongly agreed with the following:

  • My manager is clearly invested in my success – 61%
  • My manager is empathetic – 57%
  • Senior leadership respects the boundaries of work/life – 56%
  • Senior leadership provides clear direction – 54%

Thriving managers strongly agreed with the following:

  • My manager does a good job translating business strategy into the work I do – 65%
  • Communication from leadership is clear and authentic – 63%
  • My manager is clearly invested in my success – 62%

Many of the signs of thriving come down to leaders “walking the talk” and showing their employees – by everything that they communicate to them – that they genuinely care about employee success and overall well-being.

3. Make time to communicate and make the most of that time

Leaders often tell me that they don’t have time to communicate. I understand that; leadership is an all-encompassing job in a complex business environment today. Everything can feel like a priority and taking time to communicate every move can feel unnecessary and like a chore.

Yet the point I often make with leaders is that everything they do communicates something. Saying nothing is a form of communication, too. Often, it demonstrates that you don’t care about a particular initiative, even if you actually do. So if everything communicates something, we might as well take time to do a better job communicating, particularly on the issues critical to the company’s success.

For those most essential issues, it’s important to know what format of communication is most effective. When an issue is considered a top priority, it should be communicated face-to-face, either through a town hall, in-person meeting, or through a video call. Employees won’t see every memo you send, but you’re going to have their attention during an all-employee or all-team meeting. This gives you the opportunity to share with passion and sincerity the message you want to get across.

Tips for improving face-to-face communication:

  • Ensure the medium matches the message. Choose the right time and place based on your topic. In all cases, the more sensitive your topic, the more important it is to have a face-to-face discussion with employees. Use face-to-face communication for situations when you need to build connections and trust. Follow up with written communication when there are specific details or next steps your audience should know.
  • Establish an agenda and desired outcomes. Help set expectations by outlining topics and any goals ahead of time. Not only does this signal the importance of the information being conveyed, but it also helps in respecting time allotments.
  • Make the most of face-to-face time. Ask “soft” questions that check in on the whole person – not just the project status. Active listening and eye contact show your attention. Spending this time will also help you better understand where your employees are coming from: their thought processes, motivations, and drivers.
  • Be present and ask clarifying questions. Make space and pause to ask questions to clarify understanding and show you are engaged and interested in learning more.
  • Request that cameras are on for important online meetings. This allows you to read and react to body language to adapt the conversation and encourage virtual group discussion.
  • Spend time with employees. It’s a simple theory – and it works. Allocate time each month to walk the halls, eat lunch in the cafeteria, and talk face-to-face with the factory manager or employees on the floor. Ensure that on every trip, you allocate time to talk with employees at the location you’re visiting. Schedule these activities, whether remote or in-person, on your calendar, just like any other critical appointment.

4. Use stories

For leaders and communicators, storytelling is an important tool in our communications arsenal when we need to influence, teach, and inspire people to take action. Renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner’s research finds that facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered if they are told in a story.

When creating a story, you want it to inspire and engage audiences, helping them gain new perspectives and create connections that assign meaning to circumstances or information. Whatever your end goal, an effective story should have four essential traits:

  1. The story should be simple, easy to tell, and easy to remember. Leaders should engage quickly and break through the noise.
  2. Make the story relatively short and to the point. With so many information sources bombarding employees at any given time, the average person’s attention span is only about eight seconds. This doesn’t mean your stories need to be told in under 10 seconds, but instead, it is a good reminder to keep your stories succinct to hold your listeners’ attention.
  3. Stories should be purposeful and honest. Tie the story to the end result you want to achieve by positioning problems in the foreground and showing how they were overcome.
  4. Repeat your stories. To broaden the audience and the reach of the message you want to keep telling your story and have others inspired to repeat it.

How are stories we use in the workplace different from those we tell at a backyard BBQ? The main distinction is that the workplace story has a moral or a purpose. It has a punch line that helps an employee know what’s important and links the story to a desired behavior or outcome.

Simon Sinek, the leadership expert famous for his business book, “Start with Why,” emphasizes that the best stories get at the heart of what leaders are passionate about and what their goals are for the company. Sinek says Apple is one example of a company that historically has done a good job of connecting Apple’s vision to a higher purpose that meant something to customers and employees.

Today, Apple’s vision is “to make the best products on earth, and to leave the world better than we found it.” When leaders communicate such clear and inspiring messages, it’s far more helpful in motivating the team because employees can see that they are part of a bigger mission than simply making phones.

5. Build trust and credibility

There’s a great deal of discussion on trust in the workplace today – why it’s declining, how important it is, and how to build it among your teams. That’s why the often-quoted line, attributed anonymously, still rings so true: “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.”

Renowned investor Warren Buffet put it another way: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

And philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said this about trust: “I’m not upset that you lied to me. I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”

Working with leaders and teams at many different organizations across industries, I’ve seen how trust opens doors and can help leaders grow companies beyond their wildest expectations. In most cases, trust is built through one key component – how leaders communicate.

In a nutshell, here are some of the key tips I always try to get across:

  1. Be visible and approachable. You’ve got to be seen to be trusted.
  2. Take the time to explain yourself and your thinking. Make yourself predictable to your employees.
  3. Show genuine appreciation. Employees will follow you if you sincerely make them feel good about themselves and display an honest appreciation for who they are and what they do for the organization.
  4. Ask for your employees’ opinions regularly. Engage them openly and fully. You might be surprised by what you learn.
  5. Create opportunities for conversations that create understanding, and spread knowledge and expertise.

You can learn more here about trust in leadership and see what I consider the top seven traits for building trust inside companies.

6. Check for understanding

This skill seems obvious but is often overlooked by leaders. Remember that the job isn’t done when the message is sent. Leaders need to make sure it’s heard and really understood. That’s done by going beyond just answering questions. Responding to the questions with more context and detail gives leaders an opportunity to show that they care and want to understand and address any issues or concerns.

Checking for understanding also involves being better listeners as leaders. We have to remind ourselves of the importance of not being defensive and truly listen to an employee’s point of view. If one employee is sharing a contrary perspective, it’s likely others may share that thought, too. Address questions and concerns with an open mind. When you do that, you send a lot of strong messages – including that you care and you want to create a culture where everyone feels free to ask clarifying questions or challenge when something isn’t working.

Checking for understanding is also about simply checking in. Our research shows that one of the best ways for leaders and managers to build a strong rapport with employees is by doing regular check-ins with team members. This can be about the business, but also about the employee’s well-being.

We have two resources to help with manager/employee communication check-ins:

How The Grossman Group Can Help

Our team of experienced communications professionals specialize in helping leaders elevate their communication skills and effectiveness. Our team has successfully advised hundreds of leaders across all industries, from global business leaders and C-suite executives to small business owners and entrepreneurs.

We help leaders see how they can communicate more effectively and clearly to achieve the business goals they’re focused on, and the kind of business culture they’re working to build.

Among the common challenges we’ve taken on:

  • Current communications don’t adequately reflect the leader’s vision or strategy.
  • The strategy hasn’t been codified and there’s not clear alignment at the top.
  • The strategy isn’t being embedded down the organization and leaders need help communicating it with their teams.
  • Employees don’t know how what they do every day contributes to the company strategy and goals.
  • Leaders don’t communicate in a way that engages and inspires their teams
  • There’s a lack of trust in leadership.
  • Poor leadership scores or employee engagement scores.
  • The organization or leadership are seen as inauthentic and are failing to connect with employees.
  • There’s high turnover.

One additional tool that’s been transformative for many leaders we’ve worked with is our leader communication platform, which helps leaders clearly tell the company’s story, including the current state and challenge ahead, as well as the leader’s perspective on how the business can grow and thrive – the future state that the full team can all work toward.

The platform is used by leaders (and their communications teams) in formal and everyday communications to drive alignment and accelerate performance. 

We’re also highly experienced in building a customized leader communication training and development program. We’ve done this for various organizations, from the aerospace and defense industries to tech, healthcare, medical devices, food, etc. These interactive sessions focus on employees' evolving needs today and how leaders can do a better job connecting with and engaging teams in ways that resonate and navigate them through times of change and uncertainty.

You can learn more about how we support clients with leadership communication here.

The Bottom Line

Not all leaders embrace communication naturally, and that’s okay. What we’ve learned from years of working with leaders at all skill levels is that everyone – with the right support – can get a lot better at communicating.

Further, leader communication is a skill that all leaders should invest in if they truly want to take their business to the next level. After all, you can have the smartest plan or the best ideas but you can’t get anywhere with your teams if you can’t powerfully communicate your vision and plans. Improving leader communication is the clearest path to success.

In your experience, what one communication skill do you think the most exceptional leaders demonstrate?

David Grossman

For a quick reference guide on how to stand out as a leader, download our eBook, Top 11 Attributes of Exceptional Leaders and Communicators. Or, share with a leader or colleague you know is looking to elevate their leadership impact.

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