Ten Failures of a Leader: Communication is Threatening (#6)

Communication is the basis of almost all human interaction.  Communication builds trust, decreases uncertainty, increases productivity, and strengthens the cohesion of an organization’s culture.  Although communication is known to be absolutely critical to any relationship or organization, most of us struggle at assembling and transferring our messages to others.  Benchmarks on organizational communication reveal that a “leading” organization only has a 60 to 65 percent satisfaction rating on internal communication while the typical is closer to 35 to 45 percent satisfaction.

So, what do employees receive in “leading” organizations that they fail to receive in others? Effective employee communication typically relays the following answers on a regular and consistent basis:

  • Where is the organization going and how is it going to get there?
  • How do I fit into where the organization is going?
  • What do I need to do and why?
  • How should I do it?
  • What are the expected outcomes?
  • How does what I do benefit the organization and those we serve?
  • What should I expect in the future?

Poor or inconsistent communication on these questions has a direct cost in the form of lower productivity, decrease performance, and even employee turnover.  An employee feels the most engaged and integrated when he or she is confident that the organization has developed answers to these questions and taken enough interest to relay that information.

Given all the benefits and relative simplicity of communication, why do leaders fail as communicators?  Some of the most common excuses include:

  • Runs counter to knowledge is power
  • Requires more openness and sharing
  • Forces tough questions to be answered

Runs counter to knowledge is power

In most organizations, “being in the know” or “having the gossip” is considered a badge of prestige among peers.  Most organizations possess a formal and informal internal communication network that operates partially if not completely autonomously from each other.  The formal system is usually thought of by employees as being less informative, but biased by management’s desires.  The informal network is assumed to be more honest, but interwoven with personal bias and embellishment to make the information more interesting and the holder of information more important.  Regardless of the network, those that have information are thought of as being more important, accepted, or powerful.  Based on this human predisposition, some leaders horde knowledge and communicate less since having knowledge makes them more powerful and reinforces their perception of themselves.

Requires more openness and sharing

Communication typically requires a two way exchange.  The level of openness coupled with  considering the opinions of others can be very threatening to some leaders, inconsistent to their adopted leadership style, and viewed as a waste of time by others.  A key to successful exchange is establishing that providing feedback is an important part of the communication process, but the leader retains the right to actually make final decisions.  Exchange becomes threatening when a leader allows the opinions of others to easily sway his or her decisions from the intended course.  This psychological effect pertains to a perception that if I listen to someone else, then I need to react.  This effect can create anxiety and even deteriorate confidence.  Similarly, some leaders feel that their “enlightened” or superior status precludes the need to have an exchange with others at all.  Those susceptible to this persuasion feel that others have little to add that is meaningful and spending time listening would only be a waste of time and energy.  Finally, some leaders will not embrace openness due to the time needed to have discussions with employees when other priorities are deemed to be more important.

Forces tough questions to be answered

A leader wants to have all the right answers.  It is very intimidating for anyone to be questioned and not know what the right answer is or how to explain something clearly and convincingly.  This characteristic is further exacerbated by the part of the myth of leadership that perpetuates that our leaders are somehow divinely or mysteriously endowed with perfect insight and knowledge.  Not surprisingly, most leaders list not having the right answer as one of their biggest fears when communicating with employees.

The basis of any healthy relationship is communication.  Similarly, it is almost impossible for an organization of be high performing without a high level of communication and a strong exchange of ideas.   Employees more than ever before want to understand their role, what their future might hold, and be part of an organization that recognizes their value by treating them like partners in an important endeavor.  A successful leader has to set fears and concerns aside and make the investment necessary to communicate.

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