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Communicating Effectively as a Leader

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Communicating effectively as a leader is an essential skill – especially when it comes to getting things done.  You not only have to make good decisions, but you also have to be able to implement them effectively and good communication is at the heart of this.   

Effective communication is 20% what you know and 80% how you feel about what you know

Jim Rohn, Entrepreneur

How you communicate about a decision or initiative will shape how it is received and how it is executed.  Ideally you will have been involving your key stakeholders throughout so there should be no big surprises at the point of decision and the people who will be bringing your decision to life should be ready to start working on execution.  However, there’s a big difference to how people react when something is a possibility versus how they react when something becomes a reality.

Communicating effectively as a leader – 7 Steps to Success

1. Clarify the decision and share the rationale

It’s easy to forget when we’ve been involved in a project or decision-making process that not everyone has the same depth of understanding as we do.

Be clear with everyone on what decision has been made and when it will take effect. Be as specific as possible. It’s surprising how often this step is missed out or lacks clarity.

It can be easy to assume that the reasons for a decision are obvious but take a moment to share the rationale with everyone – even if you feel you’ve already done this a dozen times – and help people connect this particular situation with the bigger picture.  How is this going to contribute to the overall goals of the organisation and the things individual people and teams are working on?

2. Explain the process + show procedural justice

Want your decisions to be accepted and implemented easily?  In most cases active and voluntary cooperation of our people is the key to effective execution of decisions.  To achieve this, you need to use a fair and transparent process to make your decisions and make sure that people also believe the process was fair and transparent. 

In the academic research this is known as procedural justice.  Extensive, high-quality research shows that when people feel decision-making processes are fair they “display a high level of voluntary cooperation based on their attitudes of trust and commitment” (Chan Kim and Mauborgne 1998). 

There are 2 key factors to consider:

a) Was the process fair and transparent?

To boost the fairness and transparency of your process try the following:

  • Share information equally with everyone involved
  • Ramp up the openness and transparency
  • Avoid including options that are just for show
  • Help people separate advocacy from analysis – create separate opportunities for people to consider the analysis and weigh up the options before they get embroiled into championing a position or an idea
  • Give everyone affected ample opportunity to express their views and to discuss how and why they disagree with others
  • Encourage space for constructive conflict where people can share and debate their views openly
  • Avoid creating winners and losers

b) Do people believe the process was fair and transparent?

Research has also shown (CIPD 2020) that perceived fairness, consistency, accuracy, and openness of decision-making in an organisation is particularly strongly associated with employee commitment and identification.  In turn this is a predictor of the discretionary effort employees put in and also influences things like turnover intentions, job satisfaction, employee wellbeing, attitudes, and brand-congruent behaviours.

As leaders it’s really important that we are constantly testing for alignment between our views and perceptions of the decision-making process and how the people involved and around the process see it as there is often a mismatch.

Even if your process was fair and transparent it’s also important to invest time and effort making sure people understand this.    People need to know how the decision was made, who was involved in making it, how their contributions were considered and why they were incorporated – or not – into the final decision

If your organisation has a history of decision-making that’s been perceived as unfair, you will have to work much harder to change people’s perceptions of that.

3. Show the benefits AND what’s not changing

Explaining the benefits of a decision or proposed change sounds obvious.  But just like rationale, these may not be immediately clear to those not closely involved in the process.  Take time to clarify the benefits to everyone.  

Equally, in the rush to promote our ideas and get people on board we can forget to tell people what isn’t changing.  If the decision involves significant change, then highlighting the certainties and what is remaining the same can give people something to anchor to as they navigate through the change.  It minimises ambiguity and uncertainty and that can be really powerful.

4. Be open about the trade-offs + downsides

Organisations can be guilty of overselling the benefits of decisions or change and not taking time to communicate clearly what the downsides are.  For every decision there are trade-offs.  Many leaders feel drawn to covering these up fearing that acknowledging them will undermine the decision that has been made.

In fact, the reverse is true.  Being open about trade-offs helps build confidence that the decision has been made in face of the full facts. People will inevitably find out what the downsides are and people will talk about them.  It’s your choice whether that happens behind the scenes or out in the open where you can work together to mitigate and tackle the issues that exist.

5. Help people interpret what it means for them

Once you’ve made a decision ensure everyone gets a chance to understand what the decision means for their work, their teams and the expectations about how they need to adapt their priorities, their workflows, their approaches and their behaviours.

Some people will need time to process what the decision means so show empathy and compassion. Having a clear and detailed understanding of what is expected of them is essential to ensure both procedural justice and effective decision execution. This is also a great opportunity to unearth practicalities that might not have been surfaced fully during the decision-making process

6. Follow up and track progress

Tens of thousands of decisions are made in our organisations every day. And many never get fully implemented.   Once you’ve communicated your decision following up and tracking progress is essential. There’s a high risk that change and decisions – especially significant ones – can be seen as a fad.  People in the organisation say if we just keep our heads down, this will pass like all the others have done previously.

To make yours different you need to keep focus on the decision and keep it alive in people’s minds.  Have a plan and structure in place to hold yourself and others accountable and track progress through to completion.

7. Review and Learn Lessons

Lastly, treat the communication process as a learning exercise.  Take stock at various intervals to find out how your communication is landing with different audiences.  Are there gaps in understanding or pockets of dissatisfaction emerging?  If you have a strong network of stakeholders they will be able to provide insights that you could never hope to access through top-down communication alone. They can spot where there are misunderstandings and see if attempts to communicate about or execute the decision are struggling to land. 

Constantly reviewing the lessons at different points in the process gives you valuable insights to adapt your approach next time around.

Final Word of Communicating Effectively as a Leader

Communicating effectively as a leader is a performance differentiator for both leaders and for their teams.  It’s one of the factors that contributes to a high-performing team.   Use the tips in this article and in our Communication Checklist below to get your next communication exercise off to a good start. 

  • Map out the sequencing of communications. Can you share the decision with everyone at the same time or is some sequencing of communications likely to help your messaging land better?
  • Consider what role your stakeholders can play in supporting communication
  • Be clear with everyone on what decision has been made and when it will take effect.
  • Explain the rationale for the decision and help people make the connection to the bigger picture.
  • Explain or remind people of the process that was used to make the decision.
  • Articulate the benefits of the decision – for the organisation, its customers and community, for the team and individuals. 
  • Remind people what’s staying the same
  • Be open about the trade-offs and downsides.  
  • Give teams and people space to interpret how the decision will impact on them, the work they do and how they do it
  • Keep the communications going and review how things are landing and progressing
  • Review and learn lessons

We have some great resources for leaders in our Knowledge Hub so do take a look.  We add to it regularly so check back for new content and subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get more updates.

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