• Dr. Jeff Doolittle

4 Ways to Improve Your Leadership Communication Effectiveness



Effective leadership is communication. Great leaders recognize they are part of a team and want to inspire followers to be their best, but it's not easy. In fact, sometimes, it's incredibly challenging. From being vulnerable to saying what others don't want to hear to endless Zoom meetings. It can be exhausting. But being an influential communicator is not something you are born with or not. You can be just as trustworthy and inspiring working remotely as in the office. A few things about effective leadership communication are proven based on several studies over the past two decades. With these recommendations, you can focus on the critical few proven leadership communication solutions that create business results.







Why Leadership Communication Matters


Effective leadership is a competitive advantage and at the core of leadership is the human experience. The leader-follower relationship is everything. Followers and organizations thrive with influential leaders and suffer from ineffective leaders whatever the context: businesses, government, community, education, or faith-based.


Communication effectiveness is proven to moderate leadership effectiveness. Numerous peer-reviewed studies provide evidence that communication effectiveness is a strong predictor of leadership performance.


A comprehensive study of significant organizational change initiatives revealed that 58% had failed, and another 20% never realized the total value expected. The inability to identify or react to followers' needs during change contributes to leadership failures.


Many of us are working from home now, either part-time or full-time. Surprisingly, evidence from research suggests that proximity is not the critical determinant of communication effectiveness. Leading at a distance is still leading. The key is to be able to create feedback loops and transparency.


A recent survey of leaders across companies with under $10m to over $1bn in annual revenue identified the following negative consequences associated with ineffective leadership communication:

  • 52% reported higher stress levels

  • 44% lead to failure in completing their projects

  • 31% contributed to low morale

  • 25% said they missed their performance goals

  • 20% experienced obstacles to innovation

  • 18% reported a failure to close a sale




Build Your Emotional Intelligence


Emotional intelligence is considered the ability to recognize, express, comprehend and regulate emotions. Your degree of self-awareness, self-management, motivation, empathy and interpersonal skills make up your emotional intelligence.


Evidence suggests that a leader's ability to self-assess and modify a response to an individual's emotional needs directly impacts leadership effectiveness. Emotional intelligence is two times more impactful on leadership effectiveness than your mental or technical ability.


Emotional intelligence helps you build better relationships, reduce workplace stress, create productive conflict and improve employee retention. Leaders with higher emotional intelligence achieve better customer satisfaction and business results.


Here are a few practical tips to boost your emotional intelligence:

  • Learn to identify, evaluate, and express your emotions. For example, can you identify a low, moderate, and high-intensity descriptive word for happy, sad, and scared feelings? As simple as this sounds, expanding your ability to explain variations of emotional intensity is proven to make a difference.

  • Recognize and respond to the emotions of others. The next time you find yourself in a meeting, and you don't know why you are there. Play a game and try to recognize and name the emotions of others. Also, when you are talking with someone, try reflecting on their emotion by naming it, such as, "that is frustrating when you don't have what you need to get the job done."

  • Get feedback. Identify five people that know you well and would be comfortable giving you constructive feedback. Ask them to rate how well you respond to challenging situations or how empathetic you are. Alternatively, working with an executive coach and using valid assessments can help you overcome some common barriers to getting good feedback.





Cultivate Your Cultural Agility


Culture is one of the most potent forces in business. Culture identifies what is essential and reinforces communication norms and behaviors for leaders—cultural forces impact leadership communication effectiveness and, ultimately, organizational effectiveness.


A leader's words create in-groups and out-groups based on familiarity and understanding of the words. People in different companies and even parts of the same company might assume other intentions or meanings from the same leadership communication.


Today's leaders face a growing number of cross-cultural differences when working with customers and employees. Cultural agility is vital because, with over 60 global society cultures identified and numerous variations in regions within the national cultures, it is virtually impossible to be experienced in every situation.


I experienced the importance of cultural agility early in my career. When working for a global organization, I met with a colleague from Rome and immediately started discussing business to respect our limited time together. This culturally expected behavior in the US was considered insensitive by my colleague from Rome. Before working together, it was expected we would make introductions that go beyond our work and titles. Thankfully he was gracious, and we both recognized the difference between our intent and impact.


Successful, culturally agile leaders:

  • Understand their own culture, their organization's culture, and how it impacts the organizational culture impacts their communication and the business.

  • Recognize and appreciate the differences of other cultures as compared to their own.

  • Use their understanding of cultural differences to adjust their communication within cross-cultural situations effectively.

Developing your cultural agility requires dedicated effort and investment to break from the typical classroom presentation, book, or eLearning module. It requires a blended learning environment that includes assessments, cross-cultural immersion experiences, and structured feedback.


Executive coaching, instead of mentoring, can be an excellent choice for leaders wanting to cultivate their cultural agility.


Executive Coaching Example: A leader from one part of the world was assigned to take on operations in another in one organization. They hired an executive coach as part of the leadership transition support and cultural agility development. The virtual executive coaching relationship had three specific goals: improving the leader's cultural awareness and agility in a new culture, keeping the executive focused on their 90-day plan, and creative thought partner about decisions in a new culture.



Tell Stories


Stories have the power to engage and build strong relationships with others. Although storytelling has become more popularized in business over the past few years, leaders have used it for thousands of years. The oldest cave paintings in the world were used to tell stories of pre-historic events.


Stories can be used in several ways to increase your leadership communication effectiveness:

  1. Inspiring others to take action by being able to visualize how something might work

  2. Communicating who you are and what you care about

  3. Communicating a brand image

  4. Conveying organizational values and culture to others

  5. Encouraging collaboration

  6. Clarifying between rumor and reality

  7. Sharing knowledge about problems and why solutions worked

  8. Strategic foresight about the future. Consider the "I have a dream" speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.


The right anecdote can be worth a thousand theories. Warren Bennis

Here is a good TedTalk on how leaders tell stories:




Once you have a great story to tell, you will want to use these tips:

  • Start by providing the situation and context

  • Incorporate metaphors into your story

  • Highlight emotions

  • Keep the story specific and avoid corporate jargon

  • Add an element of surprise


This short sample video from Neil Gaiman's master class on storytelling provides a great example of how to put these all together:







Lead with Questions


Questions grounded in curiosity create influence. The higher you move up in an organization, the easier it becomes to feel like having you must always have the answer. Learning to ask the right question instead of always having the answer benefits you, your team, and the organization.

  • Leaders that ask questions become better listeners and gain deeper insights into how to bring out the best in others and guide the organization.

  • Followers asked questions develop greater self-awareness, self-confidence, and empowerment.

  • Organizations with a questioning culture experience improved organizational learning capability, enhanced problem solving and decision-making, greater strategic foresight, engaged followers, improved teamwork, and innovation.


However, not all questions are equal. For example, if you ask followers why are they behind schedule? You will likely get a defensive response rather than a solution. If you ask, what key things need to happen for you to achieve the goal? You will encourage followers to apply critical thinking to identify a solution.


Appreciative Inquiry is a positive, strength-based approach to change management that can bring new life to change initiatives. Too often, change processes begin with what is wrong. While it is imperative to fix problems, if we never spend time talking with others about what is possible, we miss the opportunity to engage in inspiring work and realize our dreams.


The Appreciative Inquiry change management approach is described as a four "D" change management process:

  1. Discovery – finding the best of what is

  2. Dream – collaborating on the best of what can be

  3. Design – establishing creative strategies to move from what is to what can be

  4. Destiny – executing the design strategies with excellence and revising as needed


Try asking using these powerful questions during your next one to one meeting:

  • What's on your mind? What else?

  • If you had three wishes to improve the workplace's health and vitality dramatically, what would you wish for (no, you cannot ask for more wishes)?

  • What have you accomplished so far that you are most proud of?





Conclusion: Improving Leadership Communication Effectiveness


Highly effective leaders communicate in ways that encourage, inspire, and motivate followers to bring out their best. Your cultural agility, emotional intelligence, and communication skills contribute to your leadership success.


Now more than ever, leaders need to ask, what can I do to bring out the best in my team? How you communicate has a significant impact on your leadership effectiveness. Communication skills like leading with a question or telling a story can dramatically improve your communication effectiveness.


What is your biggest opportunity to improve your communication effectiveness?





References

Clancy, C. (2014). The importance of emotional intelligence. Nursing Management, 21(8), 15-15.


Communication barriers in the modern workplace. (2018). The Economist Intelligence Unit


Denning, S. (2007). The secret language of leadership. San Francisco. John Wiley & Sons.


Fu, J. H., Hong, Y., Menon, T., Sim, J., & Chiu, C. (2010). Blazing the trail versus trailing the group:

Culture and perceptions of the leader's position. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 113(1), 51-61.


Goleman, D. (1999). "Emotional intelligence" key to leadership. Health Progress, 80(2), 9.


Goleman, Daniel. (1998). What Makes a Leader? Harvard Business Review, 1998.


Hackman, M. Z., & Johnson, C. E. (2018). Leadership: A communication perspective (6th ed.). Long

Grove, Ill: Waveland Press.


Johnson, C. E., & Hackman, M. Z. (2018). Leadership: A communication perspective (6th ed.). Long Grove, Ill: Waveland Press.


Joseph, D. L., & Newman, D. A. (2010). Emotional intelligence: An integrative meta-analysis and cascading model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(1), 54-78.


Neufeld, D. J., Wan, Z., & Fang, Y. (2008;2010;). Remote leadership, communication effectiveness and leader performance. Group Decision and Negotiation, 19(3), 227-246.


Schein, E. H. (1996). Culture: The missing concept in organization studies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41(2), 229-240.


Schein, E. H. (2017). Organizational culture and leadership (5th ed.). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


Solomon, A., & Steyn, R. (2017). Leadership styles: The role of cultural intelligence. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 43, e1-e12.


Vandervoort, D. J. (2006). The importance of emotional intelligence in higher education. Current Psychology, 25(1), 4-7.

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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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