Leadership Communication: Don't Talk, Teach - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 283

283 Leadership Communication: Don’t Talk, Teach

Leadership Communication: Don't Talk, Teach - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 283

Leadership communication is the responsibility of the leader. Sounds basic and fundamental, but it has caused grief with some clients of mine in the past. People can be quick to point out how the receiver has a responsibility to get it right. I know, I know. But communication is not a 50-50 proposition. Ever.

The burden is always on the person doing the communicating. All of it? No, but most of it.

A person groping to find the words, stammering around searching for the right phrase and otherwise bumbling around is not going to have a good experience in being understood. It’s their fault. They have to shoulder the responsibility to be properly understood. Put me on a plane and drop me off in Italy. I’m going to be looking for somebody who speaks English because I don’t speak Italian. It won’t be the fault of the poor Italian citizen I encounter. It’ll be my fault because I don’t know how to communicate in their language. I can get mad. I can pitch a fit. I can blame the Italian citizen. But it’s my fault because I just can’t effectively communicate with them.

Sometimes leaders fail to understand that burden. They look at their work force and blame misunderstandings on the employees. Some seem to get it. Others seem lost. Others clearly are lost. The leader surveys the troops and concludes he’s got some idiots working for him. Well, that may be, but their idiocy may not be the problem in failing to understand. It could be the leader is speaking in a way – or communicating – in a way that just isn’t easy to understand.

I’m fanatical about clear communication. Clear means direct, candid and easy to understand. Clear communication is without conflict or misunderstanding. Sadly, it’s too rare.

Emotional Intelligence

the ability to recognize one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior

This is a key to effective communication because one of the things that can get in the way, our emotions! This can be especially true in high performing organizations. Pressure and intensity tend to bring about exaggerated emotions in some people. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, or overly sensitive. It just means they’re wired in a particular way. I don’t think people are unable to improve or remedy weaknesses, but I do believe we all have our tendencies. That is, we’re naturally inclined a certain way. Some people cry more easily than others. Some people have a tough time showing any emotion. Knowing and understanding how people respond to certain situations impacts our ability to connect with them. And communicate effectively with them.

Confront an employee who is upset and snap at them to shape up. See how that works for you. It won’t. They’re emotionally charged up. Bert Decker, famed communications expert, says the most powerful communicators reach not just our minds, but our hearts: They win our trust. I think he’s right. In order to do that, we first have to acknowledge how people feel. What upsets them. What fuels them. What scares them. What exhilarates them. Leaders need to know those things and recognize them. That has to happen before any effective communication can take place.

Call center employees fail miserably at it, but they’re given scripts to try to do just this – especially when we call them and we’re upset. “I understand how you must feel, Mr. Cantrell,” she says. I feel patronized. I know she’s reading a script. And I know it’s not her fault, but it angers me anyway. Things have just gone from bad to worse because she works for idiots who think merely reciting the words is effective communication. It’s not. And we all know how it feels when it doesn’t work.

On the other hand, if a close friend or somebody you trust acknowledges how you feel and they express sympathy, coupled with an offer to help us…we can’t help but feel better. It can instantly put our head in a much more receptive place for effective communication. It’s the difference in being genuine and real versus being contrived and scripted. Good leaders aren’t contrived. Or phony. They’re real. Mostly, they’re really interested in helping their employees grow and improve.

This isn’t a tactic. It’s human interaction. It’s how we feel. Ignore it at your peril. Your leadership hinges on getting this right.

Enter work barking orders, growling and biting. Sure, you’ll provoke a flurry of activity, but it won’t all be meaningful. Or productive. Maybe you’ll feel better, thinking you’re really driving your people to higher performance, but instead…you’ll be driving the life force right out of people.

Can you be a good boss, but a bad leader? Can you be a good leader, but be a bad boss?

Sometimes people engage me in debating these questions. I answer the same way each time. “It depends.” The context determines the answer. Context plays a major role in leadership. Besides, there are definitions required. What does it mean to be “the boss?” The owner of the business might be the “boss,” but he may not be anywhere on the radar of the company leadership. Too many questions to ask and answer before any meaningful debate can be had about these questions.


I do think there can be distinctions between being the boss and being the leader. And I think it just might be possible to be good at one, and not the other. But in my work with leaders and executives I don’t distinguish the two. I want the boss to be an exceptional leader and I want the leader to be a great boss. That’s what the employees want. Better yet, that’s what they need.

There are other components to effective leadership, but can any of them exist if there’s not first effective communication? I don’t know of any. By definition, a leader accomplishes things through helping other people. Leaders need followers. The effectiveness of the followers determines the effectiveness of the leader. So much for the tyrant who think he’s a stellar leader, but he’s just surrounded by incompetence. His followers are a reflection of his leadership (or lack of). Since we’re not clairvoyant, we have to communicate what we want, how we want it and when we want it. We do that with words.

Quality, Not Quantity

Looks like they’re listening, but do they understand?

An old preacher friend of mine once told me, “Everybody thinks muddy water is deep.” We had been discussing another preacher who was notorious for preaching over an hour. The long-winded preacher was known for preaching in a very professorial tone. He would hold forth, using big, fancy words. My old friend got it right. People would marvel about the long-winded preacher. Some would even emerge from listening to him and say, “I have no idea what he said, but he’s really smart.” Sometimes leaders communicate the same way. They spend more time trying to razzle dazzle the troops than in just making sure the troops know what they’re saying.

Words have meaning, but only if the employees understand them. Every work place has a vocabulary unique to them. But hopefully you do a good job of onboarding new employees so they know what you’re talking about. But what about all those fancy (or trite) buzzwords and phrases that so often creep into organizational life? One such phrase I hear almost everywhere I go is “employee engagement.” There’s nothing wrong with that phrase, but I’m often asked – mostly by employees – what does THAT mean? More often I’m asked by employees what the bosses want in the way of improved employee engagement. It’s a classic case of leadership often neglecting the elephant in the room – helping employees fully understand what the exercise is all about by telling them plainly about the desired outcome.

“What do they mean?”

“What do they want?”

Employees spend far more time than leaders realize just trying to figure out what was really said. Or what was really meant. Just because they appear to be listening doesn’t mean they understand.

Who’s most responsible for understanding?

No, it’s not a riddle. It’s not a chicken and egg deal. Nor is it a trick question.

The top boss tells me how he thinks it’s the burden of his direct reports to “get it.” He’s talking about his staff meetings and the ability of his executive team to know what he means. “If they don’t understand, I think it’s their responsibility to get clarification. How am I supposed to know if they don’t understand unless they tell me, or ask questions?”

I don’t argue with him because I agree with him, in part. We all bear a responsibility to understand. Especially executives tasked with leading the troops. However, it’s unfair to put the burden on the listener or recipient of the message – any message. I can talk with my little granddaughter using words she can’t possibly understand. Does that make it her fault that she can’t understand? Or is it mine? You know the right answer. But at work we sometimes fail to get it. We put undue pressure on the employees to really understand our directives, our wishes, our opinions and just about anything else that comes out of our mouth, or our writing. That includes our texting and our emails.

But I’m not teaching…

I don’t mean teaching in the traditional classroom setting sort of way. I mean it in the way of transmitting information that is accurately understood and useful. “Teach me now to drive a manual transmission,” asks a new teen driver of his dad. All the stuff dad does to teach his child how to drive a standard transmission involves effective communication. I know, I know. You’re not teaching your employees how to drive a manual transmission. But you are teaching them what you expect, how to deliver what you expect and all the other details of their work performance.

You’d better be. If you’re not, my question is, WHY NOT?

Employees are frustrated by a leader who operates without clarity. Too many senior executives have said, “I just want them to do the right thing.” Or, “I want them to reach the conclusion on their own.”

My wife and I successfully raised two teenagers. They’re both grown with kids of their own now. They mostly make their own decisions now, but my wife had a hand in forming their view of the world, their view of themselves and how they’ve decided to operate as adults. During their teen years we were teaching and training. It involved lots of communication. We didn’t sit around as their parents hoping they’d figure it out, or hoping they’d dazzle us in a surprisingly positive way. No, we clearly communicated (taught) what we expected from them, how they could deliver on those expectations and then we held them accountable. Do you still want to tell me that you don’t need to teach when you communicate?

You’re either teaching your employees to know expectations and how to achieve them — or you’re willing to let them figure it out on their own. That begs the question…

What’s a leader for? Why do your people need you?

The role of the leader is to serve the employees by helping them achieve things they couldn’t otherwise achieve. That’s the difference made by every effective leader. People’s lives – their performance – is made better because of YOU. Or in spite of you.

Talk at them and it’s in spite of you. Teach them and it’s because of you.

Help them understand. Fully understand. Don’t patronize them. Just do the extra mile to make sure you understand how they feel, acknowledge their feelings…then teach them. Expect greatness from them and they’ll deliver. Together, it’ll change everybody’s world and rock your entire organization. In a good way!


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