We are upside down right now. Political furor, pandemic fatigue, a poor economy, changed lives, and unknown futures have led us down a rocky road. At times, it feels like we’re navigating through a fog, stumbling over bumps, and tripping into holes as we search for a smoother route. Uncertainty often manifests as frustration, and it makes some of us more vocal, in-person, virtually, and through social media, as we try to sort through what’s happening, to find help, and simply, to cope.
Communication skills, however, are suffering in this tension filled environment. That can be dangerous in a work context, especially for leaders. Communication is critical to lead successfully, and this is where filling our social codes toolbox comes in very handy as we determine what messages to share, how to share them, with whom and for what purpose.
Bad times exacerbate the need for clear communication
Throughout history, we often look to leaders for guidance in good times and bad. We want to hear what they have to say, to learn where they stand, and ultimately to hear our own fate as they perceive it. As such, how leaders communicate matters.
Fortunately, when it comes to effective communication the rules are relatively simple: Be respectful, and treat others as you’d like to be treated. Then, be clear, concise and consistent. If you are a leader, you have a responsibility to model expected and desired behaviors, and be mindful of how you communicate. People will follow you based on what your message is and how you present it.
Whether you’re the leader in your family, in your company, or you are a head of state, you should be mindful of your obligation to communicate with dignity and respect. Your words matter, so be measured in your speech. Successful leaders speak with confidence. They also listen, use body language to enhance their message, are thoughtful and calculated in their responses, and consistently communicate with transparency and clarity.
One of the by-products of great leadership communication is inspiration. I had a boss once who acted as a coach for me. He taught me things I didn’t know, without judgment. He provided clear goals, and watched from a reasonable distance as I engaged my new skills. He would acknowledge when I did a job well. Conversely, he pointed out learning opportunities when I did not. I think I was inspired to do well as much to impress him as for myself. He was a great leader, and he communicated so well, not only did I always know where I stood, I liked it there.
Not all leaders are good communicators
Unfortunately, there are people in leadership roles who do not possess excellent communication skills. They may dictate rather than motivate, or the messages they convey are weak or vague. Sometimes, their lack of expertise can tear down a company culture instead of build it up.
These foibles in communication often come at a significant cost. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s report on communication barriers in the workplace reveals that poor communication can lead to lower production, profits, and morale. The number one consequence of poor workplace communication is added stress. No one needs any more of that.
I worked for an interim — thank goodness — boss with very poor communication skills. His style was heavy-handed, authoritative, and borderline cruel. He “shot from the hip,” as he’d tell us, and always at full volume. I used to wonder what his childhood was like. Did it have something to do with his demeanor? His favorite technique was to threaten: “Make 10 times your salary for the company, or you’ll be gone.”
I sweated-out every profit and loss statement while he worked with us. I argued with the accountants when things were not as favorable as I’d like, and they argued back. I was in fierce competition with my colleagues, which did nothing for our formerly collegial culture. The tension was too high; the office climate was noxious. It was “do or die!”
The interim boss was clear with his directives, but he lacked almost every social grace; his etiquette tool box was empty. In short, he made us all miserable, and the company suffered by remaining stagnant in growth and innovation.
How are you communicating?
The pandemic has thrown many of us — and our communication skills — into a tizzy. But if history runs true to form, and it will, we can look forward to better days. Therefore, we can’t allow circumstances to degrade one of our most marketable soft skills.
During challenging times, I find inspiration in the 16th President of our country, Abraham Lincoln. In her book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote about Lincoln’s practice of writing “hot” letters that he would never send, in an attempt to release …” all his pent wrath.” Employing a “hot” letter writing strategy isn’t a bad practice these days. If you have pent-up ire, please write it down, get it out of your system, and then destroy it.
Kearns Goodwin wrote that Lincoln was able to lead and communicate well because he had “…emotional intelligence: his empathy, humility, consistency, self-awareness, self-discipline, and generosity of spirit.” If you are a leader, in any arena, be mindful of the enormous strain associated with the current moment in history. Engage your best communication skills with empathy, respect, and basic kindness; your employees will appreciate it.
Pause, let off steam, be judicious in your interactions and reactions with peers and with direct reports. Better days are coming. We will come to the end of this rocky road to meet on a more placid path together. In the meantime, take time for self reflection, ask for feedback, and make sure you are over communicating when necessary. People are listening. Make sure they hear something good.
This article was originally published November 2020 on HeidiDulebohn.com.