Key Principles of Leadership Communication


Updated September 06, 2018 - Dom Barnard

In any business role you must be able to convey your ideas and vision in ways that drive effective decision-making, teamwork, and action. The greatest leaders motivate and inspire their team through clear communication, while also promoting discipline, accountability and strategic alignment.

The sharing of information is extremely important to an organisation and often becomes harder as it grows. The senior leaders need to set the example by communicating information, being as transparent as possible, and establishing trust.

It’s very hard for an organisation to thrive if information is being kept in departmental silos. In this article, we cover communication principles and techniques used by the world’s most successful managers.

Benefits of leadership communication

Key benefits of good communication skills for leaders include:

  • Ability to deliver messages that inspire your audience to take action
  • Confidence when presenting ideas and the company vision to your team
  • Effectively conveying your insights and recommendations


Principles of leadership communication

Communication starts when you take over a new leadership role and need to describe your leadership philosophy, priorities and goals for the organisation. Below are the key techniques and principles for delivering your messages:

Prioritise

Poor communication can take up valuable time and can lead to mistakes. Ensure that you make a clear plan before your communicate, including ordering what you're going to say in a logical way. For example:

  • State the aim of the task and the desired outcome
  • Explain how long it should take and when the deadline is
  • What are the necessary resources
  • Any additional details
  • Repeat your communication...

Repeat your communication

Deliver your messages multiple times to strengthen understanding. There is research suggesting the importance of repeating communication, for example, in a study published in Harvard Business Review, thirteen managers were observed and their communication was tracked.

It was concluded that when communication was repeated, it was more likely that a project would be completed more quickly and with fewer mistakes (Neeley & Leonardi, 2011).

So ensure that you're repeating your messages because this is useful for your team and the organisation. Use different mediums to assist with this, for example, if you have spoken to your team about a new project then follow this up with an email to consolidate what was said.

Be visible within the organisation

Visibility is about letting your team and key stakeholders get a feel for who you are and what you care about. It’s easy to hide behind a computer and send messages to others without seeing or interacting with them.

Spend some time face-to-face with employees and other members of the company, visit offices, call centres, visit stores and other locations. It shows people that you're approachable and that you care about them. The more visible you are, the better you'll be able to lead.

Empathise

Being empathetic means that you are able to identify and understand others' emotions i.e. imagining yourself in someone else's position. Being empathetic shows your team that you care.

For example, if a manager reacts angrily after finding out that an employee has been arriving to work late because their child is unwell, the team is likely to react negatively towards the manager. It would be more favourable for the manager to be understanding and agree on a plan of action with the employee, such as, the employee starting work earlier and finishing later.

Employees will respect and trust you more if you empathise and subsequently job performance will improve.

To develop empathy:

  • Imagine yourself in someone else's position. Even if you have not experienced a similar situation, remember a situation where you have felt the same emotion your employee is experiencing.
  • Practice listening to your employees without interrupting them.
  • Observe your employees and try to gauge how they're feeling.
  • Never ignore your employees' emotions, for example, if an employee looks upset don't disregard this - address it.
  • Try to understand first rather than form a judgement. For example, you may initially feel annoyed at an employee who seems cold and disinterested. However, after discovering they suffer from social anxiety you may feel more sympathetic.
  • To communicate your empathy keep your body language open and regulate your voice to show your sincerity.

Explain complex strategy as simply as possible

Break down complex thoughts and strategies into simple concepts your employees can relate to. The more memorable, the better. If you’re having trouble distilling something to its essence, it’s a sign that you may not have a clear understanding of it. That makes it impossible for you to communicate it to others effectively. Try not to get caught up in technical jargon and business-speak.

When simplifying your objectives, be careful not to be vague with what you want from your team, make sure they know exactly what you expect and when you expect it. If they don’t understand what you’re saying to them they won’t know what they should be doing. You lose productivity when they have to circle back around to you for clarification on important information.

Leader explaining complex strategy with a presentation

Listen actively – effective communication is two-way

"When people talk, listen completely. Don't be thinking what you're going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe." - Ernest Hemmingway

Good leaders know how to ask great questions, and then listen with both their eyes and ears. It’s easy to be so focused on getting your message out, or persuading others, that you don’t tune in to what you see and hear.

Because you’re in a position of authority, you won’t always get direct feedback. You’ll need to both listen to what is being said and study non-verbal cues such as body language, in order to tell you what you need to know.

Examples of active listening

  • Paraphrasing - "So, you want us to change the message of the marketing campaign?"
  • Brief verbal affirmation - "I appreciate the time you’ve taken to speak to me"
  • Asking open-ended questions - "I understand you aren’t happy with current management decisions. What changes would you recommend?"
  • Asking specific questions - "How long will you take to finish the website front-end?"
  • Mentioning similar situations - "I was in a similar situation after my previous company launched an ICO."
  • Summarise questions - A manager who summarises their understanding of an unclear objective during a team meeting.
  • Notice people speaking - A senior leader encouraging a quiet team member to share their views about a project.
  • Summarise group conversations - A manager summarizing what has been said at a meeting and checking with the others that it is correct.

Motivate

Encourage your team to participate and share their ideas because this will help them become personally invested in their work and the work of the company. Motivation will spread to others around them.

Openness

Don't just speak with people who have similar views to your own, you should also speak to those who have opposing opinions. Show an interest in what they say with the aim of understanding how they think. This will help with your own development as it challenges you.

People will admire you for this because it shows a willingness to learn from others even if you are in disagreement. Also, by having an understanding of their perspective, it will be easier to explain what you want from them and why.

Feedback

With this open-minded outlook, encourage your team to provide feedback on you, including feedback on your communication - use an anonymous system so staff feel more comfortable providing it.

Your team will respect you for this as it's fair arrangement considering that they receive feedback. You will be provided with valuable insights into how you are perceived and what you need to work on - all will help improve your communication.

If you say you’ll do something, do it

Make sure you follow up with what you have promised. This is all about credibility, which boils down to trust, one of the most important elements of leadership. Your actions need to align with your words otherwise you’ll be in trouble, particularly if you don’t recognise and correct it quickly and genuinely.

It can be hard to get feedback on this from your team so ask a colleague to tell you if there are any discrepancies between what you say and do. It’s probably better to say nothing or delay your communication until you’re certain that you’ll be able to follow through with action.

Speak to everyone as individuals

Leaders often don't have the time to speak to everyone they want to and need to individually. To be a leader you must be able to effectively get across your message and make the audience feel as though you are addressing them individually - whether you're speaking to one person in a meeting room or addressing thousands at a conference hall.

To help with this you must identify who the audience are and their characteristics. From this you can adapt your communication style so it suits them which consequently provides you with more control over spreading your messages.

Be yourself, genuine and honest

The best leaders have learned that effective communication is as much about authenticity as it is about the words they speak and write. Don’t try to be someone else, let your values come through in your communication and use language that’s distinctly your own. People want real. People respect real. People follow real. If your employees don’t respect you, they won’t listen to you.

If you communicate openly and honestly, you will make some mistakes but those mistakes will be better than the uninspiring communications in many companies. There will also be times when you don't have the answer and it’s fine to admit that you don’t. Your employees will respect your courage and honesty.

It’s easier to be genuine if you see things from your employees perspective - put yourself in their mindset. Try to understand why they are saying or behaving as they are.

Lead by example

By setting an example it shows your team that you're capable of doing what you expect from them. It helps get the best out of your employees without explicitly reminding them. If you won't follow your own rules and messages then why should your staff? This is especially important when there has been a crisis or the company is going through a hard time - you need to show the team how to handle the situation.

People have more of a reason to trust you when your actions reflect your words. Remember that, to your team, you are essentially a well-respected messenger.

Practice communication skills

It’s crucial to practice delivery of high-impact messages, so that they are memorable and motivating. Good communication skills do not come naturally for most people. Many people, including business leaders and managers, need to practice repeatedly in order to improve their skills.

Effective ways to practice

  • Coaching
  • Training days and seminars
  • Virtual reality
  • Friends or trusted colleagues
  • Solo with a video camera or voice recorder

Be conscious of non-verbal communication

Non-verbal communication techniques involve presence, body language, and delivery. Research has shown people pay much less attention to the words that are said and much more attention to the actions and non-verbal cues that accompany those words.

Non-verbal cues include facial expressions, use of hand motions, body posture and eye contact. Leaders should aim to match what they are saying with their non-verbal cues, in this way they’ll build stronger rapport and appear more believable.

Non-verbal communication is important for leadership

Confidence

You must be confident in your communication - your employees need to believe you and sounding doubtful and negative will have the opposite effect. By sounding enthusiastic and confident your team will feel more motivated.

Tips for sounding more confident:

  • Avoid/reduce filler words.
  • Speak loudly and clearly - think about projecting your voice to the back of the room.
  • Maintain eye contact and a good posture.
  • Avoid speaking in monotone.
  • Gesture with your hands for emphasis and match your body language with what you're saying.
  • Speak at a pace that's easy to follow. If you're too fast or too slow it will be difficult for the audience to understand what you're saying and it's also frustrating. 190 words per minute has been suggested as the ideal pace.
  • Fasten the pace to show enthusiasm and slow down for emphasis, thoughtfulness or caution.
  • Use pauses so the audience can reflect on your messages.
  • Express your gratitude and appreciation.
  • Smile.
  • Avoid negative introductions to ideas, such as, "Sorry" or "This is just my opinion..."
  • State what you want to say, for example, "We need to change this," is much more confident than "In my opinion/I think we need to change this..."

Ask the right questions

Ask the right questions that will foster productive and useful communication between the team. If you have built up a smart team around you with a variety of domain knowledge, asking questions will help you learn very quickly from them. By guiding a conversation with a specific goal in mind, we accomplish much more by leveraging the talent surrounding us.

Be consistent

Leaders should want to be recognised for more than their hard work - they should want to recognised as being fair. Employees don't want a leader whose moods and attitude are inconsistent, they don't want to be constantly afraid of provoking a mood swing.

You shouldn't be leading by fear as this creates an unhealthy working environment and it can limit the company, for example, your company may have a high employee turnover rate which can affect ongoing projects and staff may be unwilling to share good ideas.

People will work hard if they like you. As a leader, your communication style must be fair, kind and consistent so your employees feel reassured in your presence.

Speak less, listen more

An important aspect of communication is the ability to actively listen as we mentioned earlier. Active listening involves concentrating only on the speaker and ignoring outside interruptions, including the listener's own thoughts or possible responses. Active listeners also refrain from interrupting, give the speaker time to finish, show they are listening by doing things like nodding or smiling, and reflect or paraphrase back to verify their understanding.

We often find ourselves in the bad habit of thinking about what we are going to say next as opposed to actually listening to the other people speaking. When we do that, we aren't truly engaged in the conversation. You often notice that the wisest people listen more than they speak. The less we talk, the more we will learn from those around us.

Be approachable

If you make employees feel good about themselves, if you're encouraging and you show an appreciation for them and their work then they will listen to you. Asking for their opinions regularly will help with this, as will having casual conversations and taking the time to send emails motivating them.

Try to be physically approachable as well, for example, don't always work out of the office, answer your emails etc. People will get frustrated if they cannot get into contact with you and may even judge you as incompetent.

Personalisation

To make you more approachable, try to connect with your team by talking with them on a personal level. Engaging in non-business conversations can help them relate to you which will help them like and trust you. This will help with idea sharing as they're more like to feel comfortable speaking with you.

So learn about your team - make the time to have lunch in the staff break room, greet them when you walk past etc. Even your business conversations can have an element of personalisation to help build rapport.

Use storytelling

Telling stories helps create meaning and can be shared among colleagues. It’s also much more memorable. You can also learn a lot by listening to employees stories, such as any concerns or issues they are struggling with.

Key benefits of storytelling

  • Energizing, persuasive, entertaining, moving and memorable
  • Stories are easier to remember than facts or data
  • Establish credibility and authenticity through telling the stories that they are living
  • Well adapted to handling the most intractable leadership challenges of today – sparking change, communicating who you are, enhancing the brand, transmitting values, creating high-performance teams, sharing knowledge, leading people in to the future
  • Storytelling translates dry and abstract numbers into compelling pictures of a leader’s goals.
  • When faced with the task of persuading a group of managers or front-line staff in a large organization to get enthusiastic about a major change, storytelling is the only thing that works
  • Storytelling can inspire people to act in exceptional ways
  • When a story reaches our hearts with deep meaning, it takes hold of us

Build teamwork through communication

If you build a great team, you can accomplish just about anything, that’s why VC’s and other investors focus so much on the initial team. Strong communication lets you attract great team members, as you’ll be able to sell a compelling vision for the future. Once you’ve build up a team, communication helps you retain it, by keeping everyone aligned with the vision and understand what’s required of them.

Build teamwork through communication skills

Be present when in conversation

Business executives, entrepreneurs and leaders usually have days with little to no downtime. They rush from meetings to conference calls, rarely taking the time to clear their heads and reset for the next item on their agenda. However, most studies show that humans are truly productive for only a few minutes each hour.

It’s important therefore that when you’re chatting with a colleague on the way to a meeting, on a conference call with team members or leading a company meeting, you are actively present in the moment. Be engaged with your audience no matter how trivial you think the conversation may be.

Keep your team aligned

As a leader, you have a responsibility to make sure your colleagues know what your vision and objections for the team are. Often we’ll say something and find out later that it was misunderstood.

A good leader has a responsibility to make sure that their team know and understand what they told them and what their priorities are. The priorities may change frequently, so you have to give people the authority to come back to you for clarification without fear of being reprimanded.

Avoid delivering monologues to your team

Staff are much more likely to listen to you and want to listen to you if they have an input. If you stand there dictating what they should do, without giving them the opportunity to share their opinions or ideas, they're going to feel frustrated. You should aim to have dialogues with your staff as this can help the project and with team cohesion.

Barriers to leadership communication

Communication does not always go smoothly due to a variety of factors, here are a few of them:

  • Not tailoring your communication to the audience.
  • Lack of planning before addressing your audience.
  • Lack of trust.
  • Lack of confidence.
  • Making incorrect assumptions about the audience.
  • Not listening.
  • Using body language that does not match what you're saying.

In summary

As a leader, great communication is critical not just to provide details about the objectives and vision of what you are trying to accomplish, but also to motivate, inspire and manage relationships to move people in a desired direction.

When in a leadership position, we often don't realise that the spotlight is always on us. Everything we say and do is being scrutinised, for better or for worse. Words and actions can become habits and habits contribute to defining our character. Leadership is a privilege that must be earned every day.

Remember that fundamentally, the principles of communication drive all business interactions.