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Leadership + Business

Why Leaders are Poor Communicators

Meg Whitman

By Kristi Hedges

If you were to name the worst leader you’ve encountered, I’ll make a bet that one of your criticisms involves poor communications skills. Communications is intertwined with leadership, both good and bad. The universal need for leaders to develop strong, transparent, motivating communications is so prevalent that it’s become almost trite to say it. Yet it remains an issue with expensive ramifications in employee turnover, morale, and corporate potential.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about workplace demotivators, and discussed the most common reasons people check out at work. It’s often said that employees don’t leave a job; they leave their manager. A manager doesn’t have to be malevolent. It’s a tough slog when you don’t know what your boss wants or if there’s simply no connection to leadership or a common purpose. Further, communications builds trust – and erodes it quickly when missing or bungled.  

To that point, in a study captured in the article, “How Poor Leaders Become Good Leaders,” most of the improvements listed by Harvard Business Review contributors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman involve shifts in how managers communicated with others.

With so much attention paid to communications as a leadership competency, why does it continue to be an issue? Is it a lack of aptitude or attitude? While this list isn’t exhaustive, here are the reasons I see leaders struggling:  

Leaders who are poor communicators…

…don’t fundamentally believe communication is important. 

They may approve professional development programs, put transparency in a list of corporate values and espouse open communications, but many leaders don’t buy into it as a personal priority.  They hold tight to the idea that execution trumps all else, and spend their time and effort on so-called hard activities instead. Communication then gets a sliver on the calendar or is knocked off all together.

HP CEO Meg Whitman shared her thoughts about this, writing, “You can improve your company’s infrastructure and roll out multiple plans from headquarters, but you won’t make progress unless you win the hearts and minds of your people. It’s critical that people connect to the plan and are empowered to drive change out in the field.”

…have forgotten what it’s like to not be the boss.

There have been numerous studies citing the inverse relationship between power and empathy. Whether from dismissiveness or a narrowing of perspective, those in power have a hard time understanding what it’s like to stand in the shoes of those below them. We pay far more attention up the hierarchy than down it. For example, we attend to the mood of our boss more than our intern. (Don’t feel so bad if you’re the boss – this behavior is even observed in primates where baboons frequently glance at the alpha male to keep up with what he’s doing.)

Stanford Professor Robert Sutton calls it the toxic tandem: just when leaders need perspective the most, they’re least likely to get it. It’s as if we put blinders on when we assume power– even though leaders have been in their employees’ exact same spots, dealing with similar sets of issues.

I’ll often hear leaders express that they are communicating constantly, and wonder what more their employees expect. They’ve lost the perspective of being on the receiving end. What feels like overkill to the leader can be a pittance to someone with a fraction of the information and context.

…are too busy. 

As Washington Post writer Brigid Schulte is discussing in her new book, Overwhelm, leaders are distracted and underwater. I believe stress and burnout are two of the biggest issues in companies today. They come up in nearly every coaching program, and are stifling innovation, creativity and strategic reflection. (Not to mention that ever-elusive joy.)

Leaders constantly have to make decisions about what can give on their calendars – and often communications activities, especially with employees, gets jettisoned. It’s simply the easiest to put off, and since communications is a long-term investment, it lacks the urgency of items with short-term deadlines.

…still operate as functional experts first and foremost.

In many cases, a leader’s strong functional competency – in finance or engineering, for example – has led them to progress up the ladder. Because this competency is so ingrained in who they are, they see themselves as an expert first, and a leader second. And that expert leans on whatever skills have worked thus far, rather than adjusting into the full leadership role.

Consider a controller who becomes a CFO who becomes a CEO. Along the way, deep finance skills become less important, and communications skills become critical in order to influence disparate audiences, covey complex corporate information, and gain alignment. But in times of stress, we rely on what’s most comfortable. That same CEO may gravitate to looking at financial reports in her office rather than communicating a refined vision for the company. Many leaders simply feel more at ease doing what they know best, at the loss of how they need to show up for their current role.

…don’t want (or know how to) to engage. 

When it comes to leadership and success, some people follow Machiavelli’s advice that it’s better to be feared than loved, but most aren’t quite sure how to fall somewhere in the middle. Similar to the point above, we are trained and guided in our functional competencies but rarely in communications.

The bar for leadership communications is high. Leaders are supposed to be confident and to transfer that confidence to others all while connecting and engaging. It can feel nerve wracking when everything you say gets analyzed and dissected – even your most flippant remarks. As this Chicago Tribune article humorously describes, small nuances have large ramifications.

Leaders can find it simpler to avoid communicating, at least until they have everything figured out. So they retrench and put off connecting on key issues, which can quickly get out regardless as rumors. Or they rely on email or other written communications that, while better than nothing, can leave employees with more questions than answers.

Leaders, like all of us, want to do the activities that they feel good and successful at doing. Communications can be difficult to get right, and though important, all too easy to avoid – especially when you get to call the shots.



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