It is inevitable: you need to know how effective communication for leaders works and learn how to improve your communication. Not only do you have to pass on a lot of instructions about what you want to happen, it’s also a matter of setting the example as well. We will understand about effective communication for leaders and learn the Diagram of Communication, to get the theory behind everyday communication.
Effective communication for leaders.
Communicating on a daily basis is already difficult: we get into a lot of problems and disagreements, partially because we don’t express ourselves properly, and because other people misunderstand us. The speaking part per se is easy, the difficult part is effective communication: that is, making our points fully understood.
To think that the leader’s role is essentially to communicate is in no way a stretch. There are studies that say that 60 to 70% of the leader’s time are dedicated to activities that involve communication such as meetings, negotiations, dealing with employees and the like.
So, why do we make so many mistakes?
There is a communication theory, which we will cover in a second, that expresses this struggle very well. And for leaders, this is even more crucial. Leaders have a lot more eyes on every word they use, their weight is much greater. And, on top of that, leaders are the role models to be followed.
A leader’s words resonate throughout the company far more than any other employee’s. They even resonate in the sense of being echoed by others. Anything you say is likely to be repeated to other people. So, although theoretically you are not to blame if a person misrepeats what you said, you will want to help that person repeat what you said correctly, do you get it?
So it’s essential to learn about effective communication for leaders, specifically. Unless you and your team work in a room isolated from the outside world. Then that’s okay. You can figure out how to work.
So let’s start this lesson by taking a look at some theories and literature, before going any deeper on how to improve your communication.
Let’s draw the big picture here:
According to a report by The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2018, poor communication can lead to low morale, non-fulfillment of goals and even missing sales. A separate study with 400 companies and 100,000 employees found that poor communication can cost companies an average of 74 million dollars a year, while smaller companies lose up to $420,000 annually! This is, of course, a survey conducted in the USA.
People communicate differently, value different things and it’s essential that you know your style – and the team members’s values. In that same study by The Economist, different communication styles are cited as the most frequent cause of bad communication.
So it is essential to study and understand how communication happens. In addition, understanding how to improve your communication will help to create a more open and psychologically safe environment that fosters team development. In the book The Power of Communication, it’s mentioned that more than a third of employees, including leaders, “rarely” know what is happening in their companies.
I will go quickly over the simplest communication theories, and then close it with the leader’s effective communication theory.
The theory of organizational communication.
This field of study of organizational communication is very broad and there are many theories. And it has many aspects, because it will vary by the size of the organization.
Perhaps the best known, academically speaking, is Max Weber, a German lawyer and economist considered one of the founders of Sociology. His theory of organizations as bureaucratic systems was a first attempt to define organizational structures and model the communication that takes place within them, back in 1964.
Weberian theory believes that organizations have defined roles and responsibilities, so communication is hierarchical, structured and clear. There is no room for confusion from messages from above. Thus, for him, each person contributes in a definite and unambiguous way.
Then we see the evolution towards the organizational control theory proposed by Phillip Tompkins and George Cheney. Both PhD in communication. Tompkins was a consultant for NASA and Cheney has 10 published books and more than 100 academic researches on the most diverse topics. It will be important to understand this before talking more about effective communication for leaders.
For them, although organizations have evolved from the bureaucratic model, it’s impossible for them not to have at least some basic structure. There are four types of control that determine how organizations structure power: simple, technical, bureaucratic and cultural.
These forms denote a progression from the organization of simpler models to a place of purpose, where everyone knows what is expected, with a clear mission and vision. The point that the researchers wanted to propose is that the organization is fluid and has “stages”.
Finally, I wanted to introduce Stanley A. Deetz’s theory, a university professor, writer and PhD in communication. In his theory of managerialism, a school of thought that also draws this distinction with the organization as a personified entity, with its own interests – different from its individuals separately.
The highlight of his theory is that he goes beyond the fixed notions of companies and thinks about them taking into account people’s aspirations and wants, and how power gravitates from one point to another. Thus, when we consider the next communication structures, we are able to see beyond what is literally exposed and judge the intention behind the messages, because this will certainly be taken into account by the listeners, if that makes sense.
The Leadership Communication Framework: visualizing how to improve your communication.
This is a visual model created by Deborah J. Barrett, a university professor and also a PhD in Communication. This is a model of three circles, starting from the most inner part. The author makes it very clear that it’s spiraling because it doesn’t serve to represent a hierarchy, but rather to represent the different needs as organizations become more complex.
All basic communication skills are at the center and all subsequent skills depend on them.
The circles are: core, managerial and corporate communication.
In the core communication, leaders must have some basic communication skills. It is the foundation of effective communication for leaders. Included as components there are strategy, writing, and speaking. Success in the business world depends on mastering these three fundamental skills.
In managerial communication, we have listening, cultural literacy, emotional intelligence, teams, mentoring and meetings. They are the skills that involve managing people, from one-on-one contacts to interactions with groups and the rest of the company.
Finally, we have the outermost circle: corporate communication. This is where the leader needs to expand his or her knowledge to manage the organization and to address the external community. This becomes even more complex with the involvement of different stakeholders. Communication continues to depend on a good strategy, but it becomes increasingly difficult. The role of the leader at this stage is to be sort of a spokesperson for the company.
Cool? This was a quick overview of the literature. Okay, let’s go to practice.
The most basic communication structure.
Now that we have seen how communication for leaders and for the corporate level are structured, let’s cover my Diagram of Communication. This is a framework that I set up drawing directly from Shannon & Weaver’s communication model, from 1953, and also from Deetz’s theory. Note that this theory was built with the telephony of the time in mind.
In this model, the communication process is divided into parts.
We have the Source or Sender, who creates or produces the message, chooses the medium and sends it. The person chooses the Transmitter, which is the means – thus, from the Sender to the transmitter there is an encoding process. That is, the person has to encode the message to the accepted format by the chosen tool.
The Channel is the means used to send the message to the Receiver, which decodes the message. And finally, we have the Recipient, who is the person who should receive the message. That person can provide feedback, or response. We also have the Noise, which are the distortions that affect the message received by the recipient.
Thus, when thinking about an effective communication for leaders and its structure, it is crucial to reflect on all these points. Finally, we finally got to where I wanted to go.
Diagram of Communication: how to improve your communication.
In this diagram, I simplify the visualization by looking at four perspectives: You, Person, Message and Context. You are the emitter. To communicate effectively, you have to take into account what you feel, what you think and how you are affected.
But before you speak, even if unconsciously, you will analyze the Context: the place, the moment and the relationship that you have. All of this imposes barriers. Surely you, wanting to convey the same ideia, might speak differently to a team member in a cafe and to your boss in his or her office. We are already noticing how political influences work.
Next, you will create the message, bearing these things in mind. Take note that you cannot translate perfectly what you are thinking and feeling. There are limitations to this process. We speak here of linguistic knowledge, public speaking skills, confidence, restrictions that you impose on yourself regarding what you will or will not say, these kinds of things. Here, we are already seeing the Noise happening.
How the person receives the message.
Finally, we have the Person, who is the recipient. He or she has their own feelings, how they communicate and how they feel. Notice that you don’t have access to any of this. It is hidden. What do you have access to? What that person externalizes, that is, the feedback. Their body, facial expressions and, of course, what they say. Now, from the moment that the Person is giving feedback, what happens? They become the Senders. And the whole process is flipped.
They will feel something, transmit something else (probably restrained in some way or shape by the Context) and you will interpret it, without being sure what is going on in the person’s head.
This is the communication process. Two people or more talking, without having access to the other’s true intentions, just capturing the encoded signals, decoding them and, most likely, without considering the Noise. This is where many of the communication problems reside: lack of transparency.
How to improve your communication as a leader:
This is why communicating accurately is very difficult. Seriously. It even happens to me, and I tend to take into account the possibility of the Noise, and I deal with a lot of people, many suppliers, customers and coworkers. Still, all the time these noises happen.
So, there are some “tricks” that you can do and practice to improve your communication.
Here is a quick example: when it is a relatively complex message, I ask the person to repeat it. I usually say “Look, there are several steps in this task and it is very important that they are followed and I am not confident in my ability to have explained it all, so it may have been confusing or even I forgot something. Can you repeat for me just to check if everything is there or if there’s anything missing?”.
This way, you assume beforehand a possible mistake of yours and can check if the message was indeed received correctly.
When I know that I might have difficulty delegating a task, maybe because I didn’t have time to prepare myself or because I’m in the middle of the situation, I already tell the person upfront this insecurity of mine. For example, sometimes I have difficult feedback to give, which I know can hurt the person. I may say “Look, I don’t know exactly how to say this, but I need to speak now. My intention is not to sound rude, but I know it may happen because I didn’t have much time to prepare. So, if something sounds too rude, please let me know”.
Do you get what just happened here?
Obviously, you can notice non-verbal responses from the other person, not only in the example I gave, but in any other situation. Instead of assuming the worst of the person, you can simply say: “Look, I’m noticing that you’re a little uncomfortable with the situation, and it’s your right, and I’m assuming that you didn’t like what I said. Can you tell me: what bothers you in what we talked about now? We may discuss this topic later too”.
See? Notice what was done in these simple examples. I didn’t infer anything. I already admitted that the error may be in my communication. And I ask the person to tell me if any of my messages rubbed them the wrong way, because it was not my intention. This is a simple step for you to learn how to improve your communication.
Effective communication for leaders on a daily basis.
But we know that, in the leader’s daily life, we often have to say things that are not exactly easy and pleasant, but necessary. The only bad thing, and when a breach in trust happens, is when the other side assumes that we are doing it out of malice or negligence.
Here is what happens: everyone needs care and attention and it is our duty to give this to people, if we want to cultivate better relationships.
In my course My First Leadership Role, I go through seven situations with clear examples that are difficult to deal with in the middle of our day-to-day lives and how to improve your communication.
The idea of today’s lesson was to go over the Diagram of Communication with you and get you to understand about the biggest problems that happen with communication between people. How about that? Better than that, just twice that.
To recap what we saw in this lesson:
We started the lesson by taking a look at how communication fails, especially due to the leader’s lack of effective communication training.
Then we went through a series of theories, to support our lesson. We talked about the theory of organizations as bureaucratic systems, then about the theory of organizational control, passing through the theory of managerialism and closed with the leadership communication framework. That spiral with the three areas of activity of a leader.
We got to know the most basic communication model, by Shannon & Weaver, with its five components, plus noise.
We then finished the lesson with my Diagram of Communication, which groups the theory of managerialism with the Shannon & Weaver model. We have You, the Person, the Context and the Message here. The most important point, perhaps, is that we realize that, just as we do not have access to what our recipient is thinking, they also do not have access to what we are truly thinking and feeling – that is why transparency is so crucial. We talked about this at the beginning of the lesson.
In the next lesson, How to delegate tasks, it’ll be the moment to learn how to go through tasks in a very basic and intuitive model and, of course, to try to get ahead and prevent the most basic mistakes that happen in this process of delegating activities.
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Always look both ways. See you in the future.