Every leader understands the need to communicate. We’ve all read countless articles and listened to more presentations than we can count about it. Yet, even with all of that attention, we still often fall into some basic communication traps that can seriously undermine our leadership. This is especially true during times of crisis and upheaval. When things are changing quickly and uncertainty is in the air, we can miss the mark in our communication.
Here are several mistakes leaders unintentionally make:
They think that if they have said or written something once, they have communicated.
As leaders we can quickly forget what it’s like to be on the other side of the communication (or the lack of communication). We forget how many times we needed to hear something before we processed it. We forget that the team doesn’t have access to the same information we have. We forget that they haven’t been thinking about and processing this for days, weeks or months, like we have. So we assume that a quick mention, a single announcement or an email is enough to get our message across. But it’s not.
Your message must be repeated over and over if it is to stick, especially in times of high stress. Be patient and don’t get frustrated when you have to repeat yourself. Don’t assume that people are ignoring you or being irresponsible when they don’t “get it” the first time. Most of us need repetition in order for things to sink in. We need to hear the message again and again. In fact, when you are sick of saying it, you are probably just getting started.
They wait until they have all of the answers before they communicate.
One of the great challenges of communication is what to say when we are in the realm of the unknown, This has been especially tough during the COVID crisis. There is so much that we don’t know and so many questions we can’t answer. It is very tempting in those moments to say nothing until we have all the answers.
It can be noble to want to have all the information before we speak. We don’t want to mislead, give people false hope or needlessly raise anxiety. So we say nothing. Unfortunately, this tends to do the very thing we are trying to avoid. When people hear nothing from their leaders, they create their own narrative. And it is most likely that the story they create in their own minds will be worse than reality. It is often better to communicate, even if you don’t have all the answers, than it is to say nothing and let that vacuum be filled by gossip, speculation and fear.
We should note here that the desire to relieve their stress may tempt us to sugarcoat or downplay hard truths, but that is not what we are suggesting. That may momentarily calm people down, but in the end, it will destroy your credibility. This is not the time to shoot from the hip. Instead, take time to carefully think through your message and calmly deliver it to your team. Thoughtful, careful, honest communication is always better than silence.
They believe that communication is about the information.
When we communicate it is easy to get lost in the information we are trying to convey. While that information is certainly important, there is something else at play here. As mentioned above, when we fail to communicate, our team has no choice but to create their own story. This often creates stress and uncertainty. In that environment, our team cannot function at its highest level. They are distracted, worried about what might be. Information alone doesn’t necessarily fill that void.
Whenever we communicate information, our teams are listening through the filter of “what does this mean to me”. So don’t let them wonder on their own. Be clear, not just about the “what”, but connect the decision or the information to the “why”. Help them see how this information connects to your vision and how it impacts them personally. This type of communication fills in the gaps and provides a sense of security and safety for your team. When people feel safe, they are more creative, more able to solve problems and more productive. Tensions are reduced and teamwork is enhanced.
Communication is too important to leave to chance, so take a few minutes to reflect on your communication in the past few months. Have you been guilty of any of these mistakes? What has tripped you up? Where have you been successful? How will you improve?
Our leadership rises and falls on our ability to effectively communicate. None of us gets it right all of the time. Even the best leaders fall into these traps periodically. What makes us great leaders is our ability and awareness to recognize and correct these mistakes. And that is something we all can do.