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June 10, 2024

Top 10 Principles of Effective Communication Today

Principles of effective communication

My entire career has been spent helping leaders communicate better. In working with leaders from a wide variety of industries over the years, our team has identified common traits that the best communicators possess. Not surprisingly, many of what defined greatness two decades ago still apply, and yet some skills have become even more relevant for addressing new challenges organizations face today.

With that in mind, we’ve identified the top 10 principles critical for effective communication today.

What Are the 10 Principles of Effective Communication?

The 10 principles we’ve identified for successful leadership communication today are the following:

  1. Demonstrate that you genuinely care
  2. Establish trust
  3. Be authentic in your leadership style
  4. Share a clear and inspiring vision
  5. Recognize everyone is a leader
  6. Master the art of storytelling
  7. Embrace change
  8. Know your audience
  9. Build a stronger culture
  10. Fine-tune the communication “system”

When leaders take the time to follow these principles to the best of their ability, the culture thrives, employees consider their company a great place to work, and business results inevitably follow. Here’s how you can use these principles to take your communication to the next level:

1. Demonstrate that you genuinely care

What this means:

Everything that gets done today is through people. When set up for success, employees will inevitably invest more energy and will naturally want to positively impact the organization. This point was made clear through a recent survey we conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll. The survey found that constant change is driving rampant burnout, with 76% of employees and 63% of managers reporting that they feel burned out or ambivalent in their current position.

Alarmingly, we also discovered that managers wrongly assume all is okay. While 89% of managers say their employees are thriving, just 24% of employees actually feel a sense of thriving.

In contrast, employees who are thriving said that the biggest reasons were having a manager invested in their success (61%), having an empathetic manager (57%), and working under senior leadership who respect work/life boundaries (56%).

Why this matters:

The key takeaway is that leadership needs to do a much better job of helping employees see that their managers truly care about them and want to see them succeed.

How to do this:

One of the best ways to show you care about your employees is to follow words with concrete actions. Don’t just give a great speech about what your employees mean to you. Instead, take actions that demonstrate your commitment to them, including checking in with them regularly (either one-on-one or in team meetings), acknowledging when they do great work, and taking the time to listen and respond to their concerns.

Further, organizations need to invest in manager training and leader readiness so all leaders know what role they play in any culture shift. Front-line managers should understand how to model new behaviors, communicate expectations, check in with employees in a genuine way, and guide their teams to a new way of working.

All of this comes down to what I call “Heart First” leadership, which is about championing empathy, humanity, and authenticity to build stronger, more trusting relationships and a thriving, purpose-driven organization.

2. Establish trust

What this means: 

As a leader, being trustworthy is about:

  • Doing what you say you will do (being dependable and consistent).
  • Being approachable and friendly (people trust leaders they like).
  • Championing authenticity, empathy, and humanity.
  • Showing support for your team members, even when they make mistakes (and admitting to your own).
  • Balancing the need for results with being considerate of others and their feelings.
  • Working hard to win over people by being respectful of their ideas and perspectives.
  • Ensuring that your words and actions match. Not just some of the time – all the time.

Why this matters:

The Edelman Trust Barometer, which has tracked public trust levels for more than 24 years, has seen an erosion of trust across many sectors. Edelman reported in 2024 that trust declined significantly in companies headquartered in the largest exporting nations, including China (down 3 points to 30%) and the U.S. (down 9 points to 53%).

How to do this:

Employees look to their leaders to set a tone and commitment to building trust. When people trust you, they have confidence in your decisions, and even in uncertainty, they will be influenced by your leadership. That is because they believe that you’ve got their backs and that you’ll do your best on their behalf and for the company. 

Aligning your words and actions is a key pillar for building trust. Starting with the top leader and moving down through the entire leadership team, it takes involvement at every level to create a bond of believability and a desire to achieve great things for each other and the organization.

3. Be authentic in your leadership style

What this means:

Remember that no one leadership style is required to be a great leader. Introverts, extroverts, and combinations of the two can all be powerful leaders. What’s most important to know is one’s style and then to flex your style in various situations. Authentic leadership is about being more of who you are in the workplace and knowing yourself, and also bringing high visibility, high-impact communications that inspire and motivate others to action.

Why this matters:

A common mistake among leaders is thinking they have to emulate someone else’s style to be effective. The reality is there is no one “type” of effective leadership style. What people respond to most at work (and in life) is the authenticity of the person leading them.

How to do this:

As I’ve described above, authenticity is also a key component of Heart First leadership, and a topic I’ve written quite a bit about. Being authentic isn’t about saying whatever you think or feel. That approach can be damaging either to you personally or to the company. We all know people who’ve taken this kind of approach – the “This is me – like it or not!” attitude or “I’m mad and am entitled to yell at people.” By contrast, I like to emphasize the concept of “respectful authenticity,” which means you never just do whatever you want and forget to care about the people around you.

4. Share a clear and inspiring vision

What this means:

Leaders inspire others by being able to paint a picture of the future they envision. A company purpose statement is its reason for being. It should answer these questions: Why do we exist beyond making money? What would the world lose if we didn’t exist?

It goes beyond who you are and what you do. It’s your why and the impact your organization has on others.

Why this matters:

For a recent PwC survey, 83% of employees rated “meaning in day-to-day work” as important to them. This has a clear impact on hiring, morale, retention, and performance as a growing number of employees want to feel that their company’s purpose is inspiring.

How to do this:

Here are four characteristics of great purpose statements:

  1. Articulate the movement they’re ultimately championing and/or why the company is on the journey they are.
  2. Are grand and aspirational while also believable.
  3. Are memorable and repeatable.
  4. Have a tone and content that reflects the culture of the organization so it feels like it fits like a glove.

Examples of strong purpose statements:

  • AT&T: We create connection
  • Ford Motor Company: To help build a better world, where every person is free to move and pursue their dreams
  • Virgin Atlantic: Everyone can take on the world
  • McDonald’s: To feed and foster communities

A smart process for writing or updating a purpose statement includes:

  1. Make it a strategic business exercise that sets the direction for your vision, mission, values, and strategy and is the foundation for how people know you as a company. Keep it from being a word-smithing exercise.
  2. Be intentional. Dig deep to understand the origin of the company and follow that thread through to who you are today, and why you will continue to exist in the future.
  3. Let leaders set the tone and involve others with purpose. The purpose statement should be shaped by the leadership team and key influencers in the company and then vetted and fine-tuned with employees so that they have shared meaning and ownership.
  4. Connect to your culture. Let the essence of your culture come through in how you describe the essence of your company.
  5. Go beyond the ordinary. If you lined up your purpose statement with others in your industry (or even other industries), check that it stands out from the rest.
  6. Have a plan. Know what you’ll do to introduce it to your key stakeholders inside and outside the company.

5. Recognize everyone is a leader

What this means:

Leadership is something in which everyone participates, whether one manages people or not. In exceptional organizations, everyone is encouraged to lead, no matter their role.

It’s easy to shy away from leadership responsibility by turning to any number of excuses. Someone else above you needs to make the final call. You don’t manage people; you’re an individual contributor. You’re a subject matter expert, not a leader. Your team knows exactly what to do and doesn’t need you. You might even simply state: “I’m not the big boss.” I hear a lot of “that’s not my pay grade.” In every case, this type of stance leads to confusion and missteps, large and small.

Why this matters:

In successful organizations, being a leader isn’t just about people managing others. Instead, it’s about helping to make everyone on your team a leader.

How to do this:

Just consider the annual scene of geese flying south for the winter. It’s then, when the geese are in search of a warmer climate, that we see the flying-V formation overhead. What’s particularly interesting about this is the goose at the apex of the V might be considered the leader. They set the course, lead the way, and deal with the most wind in their face.

But that’s only for a time. When the lead goose tires, he or she makes its way back to the end of the line and a new goose becomes the leader – setting the course, leading the way, and dealing with the most wind in the face.

In business today, organizations need a similar formation, with everyone standing at the ready to lead when it’s their turn.

6. Master the art of storytelling

What this means:

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. Leaders use stories to advance various goals in their organizations, from helping employees connect to strategy and understand what success looks like with a real-life example, to explaining their future vision for a company transformation and building trust by sharing their personal challenges and experiences.

Why this matters:

Employees are bombarded with information today, making it hard for any information to truly stick. That’s where stories come in. Renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner’s research finds that facts are 22 times more likely to be remembered if they are told in a story.

How to do this:

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. But 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.

When composing a story to help reinforce a workplace goal, we suggest using a standard formula: Context + Characters + Conflict + Moral = Your Story

  • Context: What was the situation?
  • Characters: Who was involved?
  • Conflict: What was the problem to be solved or point of tension?
  • Moral: What was the lesson learned and how does it apply to employees?

Quick Storytelling Formula

An example:

“My wife and I are working on a home remodeling project that involves a house that we thought had great potential. After we bought it, we soon realized that it involved more work than we thought. In fact, we needed to tear it down to the studs and rebuild it. The whole experience reminds me of our work in the consumer-focused business. It’s like a house that needs remodeling that was wonderful in its prime and now suffers from some deferred maintenance. But when we’re done, we know it will be profitable and, equally important, we’ll feel good about the work we did together. The key is that we’re all in this together.”

Storytelling can be a powerful way to support learning, inspire employees to action, and help them connect with what’s important.

7. Embrace change

What this means:

We all know that change is part of business and isn’t going away any time soon. Yet that reality can be hard on employees, who are constantly bombarded with so much information of all kinds that they can’t digest it. Effective communication is one of the best ways to help burned-out employees see the upsides of any new changes and understand why change is necessary, not only for the business’s continued success, but for their own growth and success.

Why this matters:

When employees don’t see the true purpose for the change, they’re likely to resist it, making it much more likely that the change initiative will fail. That’s why it’s so important to place any big change in context to help employees adjust.

For instance, the context could be industry or financial concerns that put pressure on the business. Most recently, the pandemic and racial unrest presented new and obvious challenges, prompting significant changes or adjustments to the overall strategy and approach for many businesses. As leaders, part of our role is to create a shared organizational context. That involves painting a clear picture of why any change matters and why a particular strategy or vision is being pursued for the good of the entire organization.

How to do this:

Here are three key tactics for helping employees navigate change:

  • Think ahead and draw clear linkages between the initiative and the business imperative driving the change. Be sure to explain the “what” as well as the “why.”
  • Paint a picture of what the change means to employees and spend time thinking about how they might react to that change.
  • Create your own calendar of communication events and milestones to ensure you keep people in the loop along the way.

It’s also important to remember that based on what’s happening in the moment, the organizational context you provide may need to continually fluctuate. This may feel like a simple concept, but it’s one of the biggest mistakes leaders make – they often forget to communicate the why behind any decision.

Once launched, here are some proven strategies for making any change stick:

  • Engage sponsors, leaders, and change agents, including defining their responsibilities, confirming expectations, and providing training.
  • Equip managers and supervisors with the knowledge and training needed to model new behaviors, support the culture change, and communicate effectively.
  • Deliver communications to target audiences according to the plan, check for understanding, and modify as needed.
  • Engage leaders, managers, supervisors, and change agents to communicate and reinforce key behaviors.
  • Ensure leaders and change agents are actively collecting and responding to feedback and bringing it forward to inform the project communications effort.
  • Share information and adapt based on feedback.

8. Know your audience

What this means:

Employees everywhere have the same fundamental communication needs, and they tie directly back to what we call The Eight Key Questions™. Meeting employee’s communication needs and answering those questions gives you the best chance of engaging them, especially during change.

The key questions are a lot like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which states that only after a person has fulfilled certain levels of needs can he or she begin to move to more complex levels of thought, such as self-awareness and understanding of others. In other words, employees’ basic needs – the “me-focused” needs – have to be addressed first before employees can begin to think beyond themselves.

Why this matters:

The ultimate payoff to this process is when employees ask “How can I help?” This is an expression of engagement – a willingness to do more – which also demonstrates a strong emotional connection to the organization. Once employees feel taken care of, they become more aware of changes or initiatives happening outside their department or function and ask the question, “What’s going on?” This is a transitional question that takes employees from “me” to “we.” The “we-focused” questions that follow are really about the larger organization.

How to do this:

It’s important to remember that the Eight Key Questions are questions that employees think about, and perhaps ask, every day – whether they are new to the organization or veterans. When change happens, employees immediately go back to the me-focused questions. Our job as leaders is to get them back to question number eight as quickly as possible (“How can I help?”). If we don’t, that’s when business often gets stopped, slowed, or interrupted, as employees work through – or are challenged by – change.

8 Key Questions that all employees have

9. Build a stronger culture

What this means:

There’s no doubt that a strong employee culture is one of the best ways to build a highly successful company for the long term. When turnover is taken seriously and companies prioritize well-being, employees are happier, and everyone who encounters the organization – customers, business partners, prospective employees – feels that.

A big part of the work in rebuilding a company’s culture comes down to communication. Leaders need to get better at listening what’s on employee’s minds, communicating with them in a meaningful way, and then working with them to make needed changes happen.

There’s a lot of work to be done here for many organizations. As we found through our recent survey on burnout with The Harris Poll, constant change is the number one cause of burnout among employees and managers – and that’s having a big negative impact on the overall culture.

Why this matters:

According to our poll, burned-out employees strongly agree with the following:

  • There is a great deal of constant change – 43%
  • Senior leadership creates unnecessary work – 41%
  • There is a high employee turnover rate in my company – 39%
  • There are limited mental health benefits – 37%

Further, burned-out managers strongly agree with the following:

  • There is a great deal of constant change – 50%
  • Employees are frequently asked to shift focus throughout the day – 49%
  • There is a disconnect between my employer’s stated values and the workplace culture – 49%
  • Employees are not encouraged, or even discouraged, from taking time away from work – 47%
  • The demands of my job require me to work outside of standard working hours – 47%
  • There is a high employee turnover rate in my company – 46%

Many organizations have tracked the cost of burnout over the years, and recent signs point to the situation becoming even more acute today. According to a different Harris Poll, 33% of U.S. hiring managers predict employee turnover will increase in 2024. Multiple studies find turnover often costs employers 50-200% of an employee’s annual salary in lost productivity and rehiring costs.

How to do this:

Here are some key tips for using communication to drive culture change:

  • Develop robust strategies to manage constant change: A top driver of burnout is constant change, which can lead to change fatigue and put your business at risk. Change cannot be treated as happenstance; plans and intentions must be purposeful and thoughtful.
  • Revisit your DNA and culture, updating as needed: Our burnout research with The Harris Poll showed that employees want a deeper connection between the stated values and workplace culture. Words must match actions, and actions match the words.
  • Invest in building a supportive culture: A key driver of thriving is feeling supported by senior leadership and ensuring employees feel their manager is invested in their success.
  • Adapt to the needs of today’s workforce: The younger generation reports higher instances of burnout driven by interpersonal conflict, toxic work environments, and communication overload.

10. Fine-tune the communication “system”

What this means:

As we’ve discussed, building a strong culture is key to organizational success, so organizations need to start by knowing what’s working and what’s not. That comes down to taking a pulse on the culture. Make time for more listening through a variety of forms, including focus groups, employee surveys, and other data analyses to determine strengths and opportunities for improvement.

Why this matters:

Communication is a proven tool for driving change, yet if you don’t have the best channels in place to hear what’s on employees’ minds and know what’s needed to improve the current state, your communication is just one-way, essentially just coming from top leadership, and won’t be effective.

How to do this:

Most organizations already have data that leaders can use to understand the current state of communication, such as an engagement survey or communication climate survey. If leaders don’t have data, they can get valuable information simply by asking their employees essential questions: What’s working well? What can be better?

They can gather these answers themselves or work through a neutral third party. It’s also important to ask about the one or two things that employees believe – if improved – would make a significant difference for the team and its ability to achieve business results.

The Bottom Line

As you think through these 10 principles, keep in mind the top question on employees’ minds many days: What’s in it for me?

Leaders sometimes forget that they can’t just make change happen unless their employees are on the same page with them – feeling supported and part of the process of building a great company.

Communication is the essential tool for helping build the kind of positive culture that makes employees feel that they matter. When employees become convinced that they do matter – and that they are essential to the organization’s long-term success – companies can truly become exceptional.

Which one or two principles, if you focused on today, would make the greatest impact on how you lead?

—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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