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November 23, 2011

3 Rules for Successful Leadership Communication – A SPN Exclusive Article

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Communicating as a Leader in your company is to take a daily assessment on life, and you’d better know the regulations. Fail that leadership communications exam and you’ll wonder where the production went as your business pays for it in dropped revenues. Two days ago I got back from the office feeling refreshed and alive. Five minutes chatting with my wife changed all that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like conversing with my wife. She was upset because of what happened to her at work, and after hearing about it, I was a little miffed as well.

My wife works at a part salary, part commission job selling advertising for a local newspaper. She had gone to work that day expecting the largest commission check of her career, and had left home in the morning drooling like one of Pavlov’s famous pups. Upon picking up her check, she found it a bit light and did some investigating. As it turned out, the boss man had changed the commission system overnight without telling the sales associates. Commissions for year-long ad campaigns would now be paid at the end of the year, when all money was collected, rather than now, when the ads were sold. Now be careful, I am not judging the validity of this commission system. There may be perfectly legitimate justifications for the change, but think about the way it was managed. No one who was impacted was told beforehand that this would happen or was even under consideration. My wife was not the only person impacted.

“Now hold on, there, loud mouth,” you may be thinking, “if you tell the salespeople this sort of stuff in advance, they’ll just whine and cry and try to stop it from happening.” You’re most likely right. Let me ask you this, how much work do you think anyone at the office got accomplished the day they discovered the commission plan alterations? I’m not just talking about the salespeople. If I spent an hour talking about it eight or nine hours after the fact, you can bet that anybody nearby of a peeved salesperson got their fill too– on company time. What’s worse, now your workforce feels betrayed, and may even undermine the company effort to work off their aggravations. You’ve traded a small, controllable problem for a major headache. You choose.

Prepare Them

This touches on rule numero uno. Whether you’re dealing with salespeople, floor-sweepers or doctors, anytime you as a leader needs to make a decision that affects people’s lives, tell them well in advance of the event occurring. At work, this usually affects the wallet or the employee’s benefits. Oh, by the way, this isn’t an isolated example. I consulted with a company of over six hundred employees where management changed the longstanding Christmas bonus plan without telling the employees until they got their checks. Many people received hundreds less than they were expecting, most of which was already spent on Uncle Ed’s new tie and a fruitcake for cousin Zelda. Hundreds of people were not working while grumbling about this breach of trust, and I, an hourly paid consultant, spent extra time hearing about this event rather than tackling the project I was hired for. The fastest loss of the Expectations Game that I ever did see.

Tell Them Why

Another leadership communication problem that will return to bite supervisors, CEOs, even special Project Managers is miscommunication, being misunderstood. When I want my dog to do something, I give her simple, one-syllable commands. “Bear, sit! Bear, stay! Bear, come!” Extra words cause miscommunication. Some supervisors use this approach when asking staff to do things, thinking that the less said the better. Problem: human beings aren’t dogs. We shower daily, don’t have tails to wag, and don’t blindly obey. The human mind is always endeavoring to find the answer to the never-ending question– “Why?” People can’t help it; it’s in our nature. Look at what happened in the Vietnam War, where soldiers– the most disciplined, regimented, and order-following type of American citizen– often struggled because they were doubtful of their mission, their purpose. Let’s hope the Libyan conflict isn’t similarly mishandled.

A second rule of communication then, for those responsible, is to provide adequate information for the employee to answer, “Why?” Many businesses moved to a philosophy called Open Book Management for this very reason. Lack of information frequently causes more complications than revealing those deep, dark company secrets. Look no further than the 2011 labor dispute between the NFL and the Player’s Association/Players. Let the employee complaining about his last meager pay raise see where the company’s funds went, that expenses may have risen and that revenues were down. This will drive an improvement in production more often than not. Even if your business is completely ethical you may have good rationales not to share every little thing with employees; just provide them with enough information that allows them to draw similar conclusions if they were in your position.

Communicate Congruently

What about non-verbal communication? I’m not talking here about intonation and hand motions, although that stuff is critical for effective communication too. I’m referring to a more total aspect of leadership communication that I’ll simply call congruency. This is where you walk the talk of your message. Oh how essential this is to carrying out those pesky, new management projects. Employees will see in seconds if your actions contradict your message. The employer who tries to convince his people how important dedication to the job is and then is seen leaving the office at midday every Friday in the summer carrying his golf clubs is not very persuasive or effective. This doesn’t mean you have to do everything your employees do; after all, you’re the boss. You manage; they produce. It simply means that you absolutely must show that if it’s important enough for them to do, it’s important enough for you to support.

I’ve outlined three things in this article that leaders should be aware of when communicating with subordinates. First, if your message impacts people where they live and breathe, get it out sooner instead of later. Second, if you want workers to implement on the stuff you give them to do, provide the reason why. Lastly, act congruently with the message that you project. There are many other criterions to help you communicate better with personnel. Be aware of these three and you’ll go a long way to sailing a smoother, more effective company ship.


Karl Walinskas is the CEO of Smart Company Growth, a business development firm that helps small to mid-size professional service firms build competitive advantage in an online world of sameness. He is author of numerous articles and the Smart Blog on leadership, business communication, sales & service, public speaking and virtual business, and Getting Connected Through Exceptional Leadership, available in theSmartShop. Get your FREE LinkedIn Profile Optimization eBook & Video Course, Video Marketing video and course, or Mastermind Groups e-course & video now.

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