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Leadership communication happens whether you intend for it to or not.

Everything a leader does communicates something. 

If you go straight to your office first thing and close the door for the day, you communicate something completely different than if you greet people and make clear that you are available, for example.

Many leaders (and leadership development programs for that matter) emphasize technical skills as being more important than communication skills, but what good are technical skills if nobody communicates? Here are five common communication problems that can seriously affect the quality of your leadership.

1. Not Setting Expectations

Communicating your expectations is a baseline quality without which good communication is impossible. Maybe you’re thinking, “I hired her as an engineer. It should be clear what I expect,” but that’s insufficient. To set expectations you must:

  • Define each person’s responsibilities
  • Communicate why these responsibilities matter
  • Define the typical pace of work (per week, per month, etc.) and why this pace is important
  • Ensure everyone knows important details about what’s expected of them
  • Explain why they should do things a certain way
  • Confirm that they understand all of this

2. Undefined Communication Channels

While you should make use of multiple communication channels, you should define what they are and what you use them for. For example, quick notes might be shared on a Slack thread while detailed instructions typically go through email. You use phone calls when emails aren’t sufficient or when unusual circumstances occur. In other words, your team members must understand why they should monitor email and other channels and not ignore any communication channels.

3. One-Way Communication

Communication implies a two-way or multi-way conversation, not just top-down edicts. One hallmark of an effective communicator is that they listen more than they speak – and that includes leaders. When team members don’t bother saying anything because they know you aren’t listening, everybody loses. Ensure you listen as well as speak and ensure everyone knows that you want their feedback. Don’t just say it; do it.

Communication must go in multiple directions. Top-down communication is insufficient. 

4. Information Silos

Information silos are often unintentional, but they can go from being benign to being harmful. Silos allow one person or group to hoard information, and this severely hinders communication. Identify where information silos may exist and do the hard work of breaking them down. Some people may balk at the thought of not being the personal gatekeepers of critical information, but you will have to work with them to overcome this. Siloed information and good communication don’t go together.

5. Fear of Sharing Bad News

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many leaders face the prospect of having to communicate bad news. Nobody likes doing this, but avoiding it is profoundly destructive. People generally have an idea of what is going on, and lack of leadership communication allows rumors and gossip to proliferate. Take the appropriate tone and be honest with your team. They may not like the actual news, but they will respect you for being honest and keeping them informed.

In summary, poor communication amplifies the bad and dampens the good, as you can see in the following chart.

Effects of Poor Leadership   Communication
Poor Communication Increases These Poor Communication Decreases These
Error rates Productivity
Negativity Quality
Blame Initiative
Absenteeism and tardiness Cooperation and collaboration
Customer complaints Accountability
Excuses for bad work Customer satisfaction

Communication has always been essential to outstanding leadership, and today it is even more essential as we face uncertain times and many questions about the future. Setting expectations is the foundation of leadership communication, but don’t forget to set expectations of yourself.

Leadership development requires that you hold yourself to high standards of quality and accountability, and communication is as critical as any technical skills you may have. To learn more about effective leadership communication, I invite you to check out my books as well as my speaking and training services.

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