If you’re a leader in your organisation, your department, or your team, one of the things that probably makes you want to close your soundproof office door (as if) and have a good scream is communication. It’s always been difficult, but lately, as everything moves faster and is more complex and uncertain, it seems it’s even harder.
Too much noise, not enough signal
You probably spend more than half of your time talking with people—in meetings, presentations, on the phone, or one-on-one. It’s important to make sure this is time well spent, not only for you but for everyone involved. Ineffective communication wastes time, creates confusion and frustration, and bogs down progress. Leaders need to find ways to make their messages clear and memorable, and to generate effective outcomes.
Influence versus control
As Frank Buytendijk stated at the 2015 Gartner Symposium, ‘influence scales, while control does not.’ Influence is your most critical leadership capability, and in an environment of increasing complexity and less control, it’s more important now than ever before. Leaders need to gain skills to communicate in a way that builds trust and influence throughout their organisation.
Disruption is the new black
Change is now business as usual, but that doesn’t make it easier. Many people in organisations are overwhelmed by constant change and find it difficult to adapt and transform to new mindsets and new ways of working. Leaders need to find ways to communicate that will foster an agile, resilient culture where their teams can flow with transformation instead of fighting it.
I think leaders communicate at different levels, on a scale that looks like this:
Noise: Radio static
Some leadership teams provide no consistent messages at all. Employees are receiving either radio silence or static from the leadership team, but no clear signal. This leaves employees confused and frustrated. Unsure of what the priorities are or how their work contributes, they become overwhelmed by their inbox, their diary and their task list. Rather than focusing their efforts on what’s most important, they waste time on less important tasks and in endless meetings that don’t achieve anything.
Information: Talk radio
Some leadership teams provide consistent, useful information that lets people know what’s happening, what the priorities are, what they can expect, and what they need to do. Most communication in organisations tends to be at this level of factual information. Employees and stakeholders are now receiving a clear signal, and what they’re picking up is a talk radio channel. The problem with communicating at this level is that information on its own is forgettable, dull and doesn't inspire action. If people are at all skeptical of the leader or the plan, communication based only on information can also create unexpected resistance.
Connection: Toe-tapping tunes
Leadership teams that learn to connect rather than just inform have cut-through. They build trust and influence. Employees and stakeholders are still receiving a clear signal from the leadership team, but now instead of talk radio they hear music they want to sing along with and dance to. People want to listen to these leaders; they understand the real message the leader is conveying, they connect with it, remember it, act on it, and retell it. Leaders who learn to tell stories effectively in their leadership communications achieve this level of connection.
Transformation: Jazz ensemble
There is an even higher level of communication that a few leadership teams are able to reach.Transformational communication brings everyone in the organisation on a journey of continuous evolution. These leaders are able to show the people around them a larger story, a story they can see themselves in and want to be part of. Instead of listening to the radio, employees become the performers and artists who create the music. Leaders who communicate at this level are in tune with the experience of transformation itself. They know how to guide their teams through the difficult and uncertain parts of change, and they know how to recognise and celebrate achievements.
The secret sauce for moving above the line from Information to Connection is to learn to weave stories into your leadership communication.
Stories have been shown to capture people’s attention and to convey information in a way that is more understandable, more memorable, more meaningful, and easier to retell than other means of communication. Stories also go where information can’t; stories influence people’s feelings, and therefore they influence people’s decisions and actions. Think about a presentation you’ve seen that has stuck with you. What was it about it that you remember most and that brought it to life for you? Chances are it was a story.
The best stories for connecting are episodes from your own experience. These stories humanise you and increase your leadership credibility and influence. They give others permission to be human too, creating over time a culture of trust. The stories don’t need to be epic or intensely personal; small stories about events that have happened to you or things you’ve noticed at work or at home, if they illustrate your message, are excellent.
And what about Transformation?
Well that’s a story for another day and another post. This one’s already long enough.