Effective leadership communication is a crucial factor in business success.
Processes and systems can only take an organisation so far.
People want to be led by those who inspire, motivate, empower and provide reassurance when times get tough.
They want leaders who show them how they fit in with their vision.
But there is more to effective leadership communication than being a good talker and exchanging information.
Why is good communication important in leadership?
Before we look at the crucial leadership communication skills, let's delve a little deeper into the importance and impact of effective communication. And how poor communication impacts the workplace.
Stats show three in four employees see effective communication as the number one leadership attribute. However only one in three workers believe leaders communicate effectively.
And poor leadership communication can be hugely damaging. Research from The Economist's Intelligence Unit says it causes delays or failures of projects, low morale, lost sales and missed performance goals.
Poor leadership communication costs energy, time and money. Research carried out by Grammarly estimates poor communication costs US businesses $1.2 trillion a year - or approximately $12,506 per employee every year.
A separate study in the UK showed poor communication within the organisation can cost up to £25,000 per year, per employee. Costly.
What are the other benefits of good leadership communication skills and the consequences of poor communication?
Benefits of strong communication skills
Good communication skills offer a multitude of benefits, including:
- Increased productivity
- Clear understanding of expectations and priorities
- Improved employee engagement
- Better staff retention
- Improved trust in leadership
- Increased customer satisfaction
Consequences of poor communication
Ineffective leadership communication doesn't just have a financial impact. Other consequences can include:
- Culture of suspicion and distrust
- Doubt and uncertainty
- Reduced productivity
- Lower morale and increased absenteeism
- Widespread rumour and speculation
The benefits and risks are clear. But here's the problem. Good communication skills are not as widespread as they should be.
A study carried out by the Harvard Business Review found more than two-thirds of leaders are uncomfortable communicating with employees. And that statistic doesn't take into account how they feel about communicating with other stakeholders.
How to develop effective communication in leadership
So, how can leaders establish good communication?
Effective communication doesn't just happen. Communication skills are developed, honed and finessed.
Leadership communication skills training is crucial.
In the meantime, we have pulled some advice from our training to help develop your understanding of good communication skills and effective workplace communication.
One of the communication barriers effective leaders must overcome is the feeling they should have all the answers before they start communicating.
Employees want more communication not less, particularly during times of high stress or change. And when they don't hear from leaders, rumour and speculation take over.
So, don't delay communication until you feel you have all the relevant information. Update them on what you do know.
Know your audience
A key way to enhance communication is to know more about the people you are talking to and their needs.
Who are your key stakeholders? How do they differ? What do they have in common? How knowledgeable are they about the subject? What is likely to be on their mind? How do you want them to feel?
And what are their communication preferences?
The better you know who you are speaking to, the better placed you are to understand the best communication strategies to reach them. And you will be able to empathise with them and guide them toward what you want to achieve.
The role of curiosity
Curiosity is an increasingly crucial communication skill for leaders.
Dan Boniface, the head of training at The BCF Group (our sister company) describes it as "one of the top skills for a leader to have and develop".
He said: “Curiosity creates energy for you and your team.
“By being curious and inquisitive, you can draw information out of others, which develops your learning and knowledge.
“We all feel good about ourselves when we learn something new. And it creates a culture in the team of asking questions and having transparent conversations.
“You don’t want people hiding things. You want them to tell you if there is a problem or something is going on because you can try to fix it – or better still, coach them to fix it.”
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”– Ernest Hemingway
Listening is a communication skill.
Successful leaders know when to talk and when to listen.
Listening fosters trust, builds rapport and can encourage input. It shows you care about your team members and value their ideas, knowledge, insight and constructive feedback - enhancing company culture.
So, when others speak, show you are engaged in the conversation, remove (or turn off) distractions like laptops and mobiles, and ask open-ended questions that help uncover further information.
Business leaders should also understand people rarely fully share everything that is going on. So, listening should involve reading between the lines by observing body language, facial expressions, and eye contact to understand what support might be needed.
Simplicity is a vital component of strong leadership communication.
There is often a fear simplicity means dumbing down.
But if leaders want to persuade, influence, convince, inspire, convey information successfully and create logical and compelling arguments, people must understand what they say.
Remember, not everyone has the same knowledge and background.
Whether communication is written or spoken, there is a brilliant rule from The Washington Post that should be applied - "The more complex the thought, the shorter the sentence".
Leaders must use short words to express ideas and talk about difficult or complicated things - it removes confusion and replaces it with clarity.
There is a lot of talk about storytelling - and with good reason.
It is a powerful communication tool that builds clarity and trust, creates an emotional connection and can inspire team members. Stories capture both hearts and minds and enable important human connections.
And they are memorable. Your audience might struggle to remember facts and figures. But a story can stay with people and affect what they think. And they repeat them.
Stories also work across all communication channels.
The key is to ensure they are relevant to the audience and message. They must also be relatable and tell people something new.
This links to storytelling. But it is not just about sharing personal stories and anecdotes and giving people a window into your world.
Allowing your personality to come through in your communication helps leaders seem relatable to their team members.
Those who don't do it can appear distant and aloof.
Getting personal also involves leaders discovering more about those they work with - communication is a two-way street.
Like stories, metaphors are another tool skilled leaders use to make messages memorable, share emotions and offer different perspectives.
They also help team members grasp ideas and main points and can make the complex understandable by comparing them to everyday situations. They can breathe life into an organisation's mission statement or strategy document.
But business leaders are sometimes reluctant to use them because they feel it doesn't fit their communication style or think it will make them appear unprofessional.
These concerns must be overcome if you want to become an effective communicator.
The key, as we've already hinted, is to use relatable metaphors. For example, can you compare that new strategy document to something everyone can relate to, like driving or shopping?
An effective leader is willing to admit mistakes.
It is an approach that has many communication benefits. It helps build confidence and trust and earns respect.
And it helps to promote respectful dialogue where others can admit uncertainty, concerns and errors - allowing leaders to spot potential issues and knowledge gaps.
But admitting mistakes can feel hugely daunting.
One way to overcome this is to remember no one expects leaders to be perfect. And they are not looking to follow a robot.
Positive body language
Workplace communication skills are not just about what leaders say. How they say it is another vital part of communication in leadership.
Experts believe between 70 and 93 per cent of communication is non-verbal.
An effective communicator masters what their body language says and ensures it aligns with their message.
Maintaining eye contact and facial expressions, like smiling, impact the perception of the effectiveness of leaders and whether people trust what they say.
Sitting up when someone talks and nodding can show you are an active listener, take what others say seriously and make them feel comfortable communicating with you.
Tilting your head to the side slightly can suggest curiosity, and an eagerness to learn more.
Negative body language, such as having your arms folded, can create the impression you are not open to other perspectives and ideas.
Tone of voice can also be a communication barrier.
During our leadership communication training courses, we tell our delegates that if you need to deliver bad news, a lower tone can show authority and an understanding of the seriousness of the situation.
A higher pitch can help show your enthusiasm for a project or initiative.
Nobody wants to have difficult conversations. And it is understandable why they might come at the top of a list of communication concerns.
But they are inevitable in the workplace. And being willing to initiate them is a core leadership function.
Difficult conversations are not just about poor performance and keeping employees informed of bad news.
It could be one you feel ill-equipped to handle, dealing with employee requests or discussing something in their personal lives.
The key is to avoid putting them off. A recent survey showed more than 80 per cent of employees cower from necessary but difficult conversations.
Around 25 per cent of those who took part delayed scary talks for six months. And one in ten put them off for a year.
That's a lot of conversation being avoided and delayed. And it is not the behaviour of effective leaders.
During our leadership communication skills courses, we tell delegates to change the mindset around these conversations. It is also something we discussed during one of our Media Team Academy masterclasses.
Dan told our Academy members: "Is it a difficult question? Or is it a challenge? When we describe it as being ‘difficult’, that has negative connotations.
“If we can change the mindset to ‘challenging’, it doesn’t sound so bad. You start to think, ‘I can work through this’.
“And actually, we can build up anxiety and trepidation about these conversations and, when it’s finished, it wasn’t as bad as we thought it was going to be.”
Emotional intelligence is a skill effective leaders master.
Like storytelling, emotional intelligence has become something of a leadership buzzword. It has also become one of the most sought-after leadership skills.
The phrase was first coined in the 1990s, and it means leaders having the ability to understand and manage their emotions and recognise and influence the emotions of others.
In terms of leadership communication, it means knowing your emotions and how they impact the way you communicate with different audiences, reducing your chances of becoming flustered or saying something you regret.
But it is also about understanding the views, ideas and positions of others - and different situations - and adapting communication styles to communicate more effectively.
Need some help with leadership communication?
Our courses guide delegates through how effective leadership communication can transform an organisation and help it reach its goals.
Our training helps develop their communication skills, find their communication style, develop emotional intelligence, give honest feedback, improve their active listening, and communicate with clarity and confidence.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
Click here to find out more about our leadership communication training.