Look at any job description for leaders at any level and there it is under essential qualifications: excellent communication skills. Recent leadership literature suggests there’s more to it than being a good listener and an articulate speaker.
I scan or read a fair number of leadership publications and blogs. Hardly a week passes in which I will not encounter a title like this or some variation on it: “The Most Important Skill Every Leader Needs.” Invariably the author will focus on some essential leadership quality that is fairly well known as a skill leaders need to have. Sometimes it’s trust, transparency, or integrity. It might be the importance of having a clear vision or establishing a particular culture. But the one leadership skill that comes up time and time again, perhaps more than the others combined, is communication.
More Than Good Listening
No one argues the need for leaders to be great communicators. There’s no doubt that much of the dysfunctional administrative behavior and employee conflict in organizations could be traced to poor communication. While it is important for leaders to be highly adept as both speakers and listeners (and if it came down to one or the other, my take is that the majority of leadership experts would point to the greater importance of finely tuned listening skills), there’s more to leadership communication than just being a great listener or speaker. There are other layers of communication that are just as important to remarkable leadership. As we develop our skills as leaders, evaluating where we need to improve and better ourselves, we tend to overlook these more specialized situations that call for great communication ability. When it comes to difficult conversations, we need to know what not to do.
Don’t Ask These Questions
One thing I’ve learned from good leaders is the value of asking questions. Unfortunately, a good question can be weakened by the way it is asked. Is it leading? Is it framed as a critique rather than an opening for information gathering? According to Warren Berger, author of a new book about the value of inquiry titled A More Beautiful Question, leaders need to know the five questions they should not ask. What they need to know is how to structure the conversation to obtain desired information without creating tension and mistrust.
- “What’s the problem?” is the wrong question to ask to learn about a problematic staff or office situation. It’s a negative approach that’s likely to put people on the defensive. Instead, ask what’s going right or focus on a positive outcome and engage in a discussion about how to get there.
- “Whose fault is it?” as a question makes it clear that finding someone to blame a failure on is more important than focusing on troubleshooting with the goal of improving a team and minimizing a future failure.
- “Why don’t you do it this way?” will come off as a thinly disguised effort to control staff into doing things your way. Avoid this leading question and instead focus on working with staff to learn how they intend to get something accomplished, what level of support is needed to achieve success, and what can be done to empower them to make real progress.
- “Haven’t we tried this already?” is a show stopper question that leaders ask to put an end to requests for resources or the sharing of ideas. Instead, ask questions that will get people focused on what will be different this time, make suggestions for what might be changed, and provide expectations for results. If properly thought through, an idea might work a second or third time.
- “What’s our iPad?” is a combative way leaders ask staff why no great new ideas or services have surfaced recently. It can leave staff feeling stressed and pressured to suddenly make something happen. If there’s a service out there that you admire as a leader and would like to do something similar or even better, engage staff in a discussion of the service with a focus on whether it would meet a need for the community members and if so, how your library might do an even better job with it.
In general, think through what it is you want to know and how that information can be obtained in a positive way that leaves staff feeling like they were consulted and involved in a conversation, rather than interrogated. Whatever the question is, first ask yourself if will come across like a parent talking to a child and second, make sure you really want to know the answer and are prepared to take some action when you get it.
Tackling Difficult Conversations
First, let’s be positive and call it “corrective feedback.” Whatever you call it, delivering it to someone is never easy. And that’s part of the communication problem. Instead of just getting to the problem, we may take a more indirect approach in which we try to sandwich the feedback with praise. According to Sarah Green, senior associate editor at Harvard Business Review, that’s exactly what you want to avoid because it dilutes your message. It’s best to give the feedback in a separate conversation. Delivering praise is as much an art as giving corrective feedback. Just remember to separate them and focus on effort, not ability. A conversation that involves criticism is just one type of difficult topic you will likely encounter as a leader.
According to consulting firm Zenger Folkman, while managers dislike giving critical feedback, all employees value hearing it—and often find it even more useful than praise. It’s all in how you approach it. Green’s other tips:
- Hold regular meetings where conversations about projects and progress are routine. That way corrective feedback can be discussed more holistically. If meetings are only held when corrective feeback is needed, it comes off as negative.
- Likewise, avoid making it a part of an annual evaluation, especially if it’s tied to promotions or pay increases. If you waited until now to deliver the feedback, you’re creating more problems.
- You should consider framing the conversation as a request for permission to provide some feedback. It provides a tip that some challenging conversation is ahead.
- Unless you completely know the facts, avoid jumping to conclusions about employee behavior. Take the time to explain your concerns and then work together to understand what’s going on.
- Holding a prior conversation about goals and expected outcomes is helpful because it can be used to frame the corrective feedback by putting it in terms of what positive outcomes need to be achieved and what might be preventing it from happening. Be specific about what needs to happen moving forward.
When It’s Bad News
Delivering any type of bad news is something every leader dreads but must find a way to do, and too often the way we choose is the wrong one. Peter Bregman, CEO of management consulting firm Bregman Partners, shares a story about a time when he needed to have a difficult conversation with a colleague and how he made things worse with his communication snafus. His first mistake was procrastinating on having the conversation. Then when he did get around to having it, he completely mishandled it. Hearing this from Bregman, a leader whose columns I always enjoy, provides some comfort in knowing any leader can go astray when it comes to difficult conversations. But he acknowledges that we can get better by reflecting on our communication—and it doesn’t hurt to follow recommendations and advice from experts like Green.
Learn From Those Mistakes
When it comes to communication, no matter how well we develop our listening and speaking skills, like Bregman, we may fail to avoid the pitfalls of difficult conversations. The challenging situations in which we will find ourselves are just too numerous to always know what to do. I once miscommunicated information to a job candidate and wound up having two individuals thinking they had gotten the job—not a good situation. Human resources helped concoct a strategy to resolve the confusion, but fortunately one of the two candidates decided to choose another job. If not for that, it could have gotten messy.
One plus is that such occasions represent our crucible moments. In addition to learning from our own mistakes, we can take away lessons from the mistakes of other leaders who suffer communication gaffes. Those victimized in the past by a leader with poor communication skills, whether it was by yelling, deception, or a big praise sandwich, may vow to never repeat those mistakes. When it comes to leadership communication skills, who we are and how we operate is often shaped by our personal experience, both the cues we pick up from others and the mistakes from which we learn.