Good communication is absolutely critical to your success as a leader. Yet as essential as it is, good communication is very rare. My many years as an executive, including more than a decade leading Chipotle, taught me that most people are poor communicators.
I am personally very frustrated by poor communication, and I see it daily. I see poorly written materials, brochures, instructions, recipes, advertisements, contracts, letters, mission statements, and speeches everywhere I look.
It’s a major problem. Poor communication causes people and organizations to spend energy going nowhere, or in the wrong direction. It confuses people and then they’re not efficient and effective. It frustrates customers, resulting in poor service and lost sales.
In my experience, there are four big reasons people, especially leaders, fail to communicate effectively. Chances are, you’re making one of these mistakes without even realizing it.
#1: Trying to Sound Smart
People often try to make simple things seem more complex because they think it makes them sound smart. This is usually an effort to increase their sense of importance or justify their salary or position. At Chipotle, I taught our teams the silliness of useless words. I explained the importance of selecting words designed to increase understanding.
For instance, restaurant industry executives, afraid they’ll be judged unimpressive, since it’s a simple business, often use jargon to make what they are saying more complex so that they might sound smarter. For instance, on an earning’s call, an industry executive might say:
“We’ve not been immune from the headwinds most other restaurants have experienced because of the El Niño winter and resulting marginal rising costs in our market basket, which negatively impact our COGS and restaurants’ level margins. For this reason, we are analyzing the degree to which there might be resistance if we go to the menu board in order to assure margin preservation, or whether it is more prudent to avoid any possible loss of foot traffic by accepting a temporary decline in restaurant operating margins associated with the likely uptick in cash outflow for our commodity purchases.”
A leader committed to better communication might say exactly the same thing as follows:
“Food costs are rising because of bad weather, so we will either raise prices or accept lower margins so we don’t lose customers.”
This latter statement says the same thing, but in a way that anyone can understand. That makes it more effective, because with communication, it’s better to be clear and understood than to sound smart.
#2: Having a Fear of Conflict
A lot of bad communication also stems from people being afraid of conflict. They worry that others won’t like what they say, will disagree with them, or judge them. To avoid this, they use words that are general, indirect, or empty.
This tendency to avoid conflict is extremely prevalent among leaders, who often want to be popular and well-liked. This desire to be liked is often more powerful than the desire to give clear direction, make crisp decisions, and powerfully focus their team on what is needed for the organization to succeed.
In particular, most leaders are not clear with their critical feedback. They muddle the feedback by saying too many words, usually burying any criticism in a bath of words so dilutive that the recipient doesn’t get the benefit of the criticism at all.
The vast majority of people, when faced with a decision between having an uncomfortable conversation that is likely to help a team member, or having a more comfortable, vague, and ambiguous conversation that is very unlikely to help a team member, will choose the latter.
Having the tough talk is actually an act of caring, love, and grace, though. It is an act of placing one’s self in a vulnerable position in an effort to make someone else better and help ensure their success.
#3: Neglecting to Develop Skills to Listen and Communicate
One of the simplest reasons people are poor communicators is that they’ve never put in the practice and hard work to develop better skills at communicating and listening. Effective communication doesn’t just happen by magic; it is something you must work toward.
As a leader, you have even more work to do, because you must develop not only your personal communication skills, but also those of your team and organization.
To build effective communication in an organization, a leader must first commit to improving his or her own communication. Then, the leader needs to ask someone close to them, who is willing to challenge them, to review and critique their written and spoken communication, as we are often blind to our own poor miscommunication.
The leader then needs to make good communication a central part of the culture by announcing to the whole organization the importance of it. Then, the leader must lead by example. Speeches and presentations must be excellent, crisp, and helpful. Aimless ramblings need to be avoided. When leaders witness poor or ineffective communication, they need to compassionately but swiftly put a stop to it, recognizing that precious time and resources are being wasted.
#4: Becoming Immune to Poor Communication
Poor communication can be so prevalent that it goes unnoticed. Over time, people have become accustomed to saying things that have little or no meaning. We have come to accept that empty, repetitive, or even incorrect statements are the norm.
Chances are, you’ve become immune to poor communication. To combat this desensitization, you must commit to making good communication a daily focus. Part of making it a daily focus means assuming you’re not communicating clearly enough, or often enough.
If you study this subject, you will find countless examples of inadequate or insufficient communication, but you’ll never find a single leader communicating too much, or too clearly. In my career, when I started communicating more and more, even at times to the point that I felt like I might be overdoing it, the results were stellar! Employees lit up, felt in the know, and were more empowered than ever.
People tend to think they’ve communicated clearly, even when they haven’t. While most people think they’re the exception to this rule, I have met very few leaders who are clear enough with their people about expectations and about their evaluation of people’s performance.
So start with the assumption that you aren’t communicating well enough. Worst-case scenario, you get even better at communicating!
Becoming a Better Communicator
As parents, leaders, and as a society, we can and should commit to communicate better. We can be clear. We can use words accurately. We can say what we mean. We can be brief. We can keep things simple. If we choose to be more disciplined in this way, we will accomplish more in our lives and in our organizations.
To accomplish this takes commitment, hard work, and constant correction. Bad habits take time to break. But while deep communication takes hard work, the rewards are far-reaching.
Good communicators make better leaders, better friends, better spouses, and can bring more positive change to our world. Your path to becoming a better communicator starts with correcting these four mistakes. So stop trying to sound smart. Don’t be afraid of conflict. Develop your communication skills. And don’t settle for poor communication.For more advice on effective communication, you can find Love Is Free, Guac Is Extra on Amazon.