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The Lost Art of Leadership Communication: What Do Eleven Thought Leaders Tell Us?

By Shari A. Duron, Ph.D., Senior Consultant, The Piras Group

Leadership Communication

After years of managing and consulting to SME and Fortune 500 companies, I have discovered that organizational leaders consistently communicate poorly. In analyzing organizational dysfunction, many leaders unknowingly miscommunicate with colleagues resulting in significant disconnects. This discussion focuses on one primary reason for disconnects – effective listening – a critical communication skill for you as an organizational leader.

If you believe that you are a leader who is an excellent communicator and need no reminding on the necessity of listening, perhaps you do not need this brief review. However, what do your colleagues and/or employees say about your ability to thoroughly listen to what they are saying? Is there a gap between your opinion of yourself and that of those with whom you engage? And how would you know?

Since there are countless books and articles on leadership communications and the art of listening, there is no need to conduct more research or completely rewrite aspects of solid analyses.  My intention is not to conduct an exhaustive meta-analysis, but to focus on lessons learned using eleven respected thought leaders. 

How well do you listen?

Based on conducting multiple organizational assessments over a 30-year timeframe, I found gaps in perception are the norm with many leaders. Knowing something and doing it effectively are two very different capabilities and this topic has been documented well by Jeffrey Pffefer & Robert I. Sutton. The “knowing-doing gap” is our starting point. 

Pfeffer and Sutton state that for some companies, “talking” is considered a complete communication withimplied action, e.g. mission statements imply action is being taken. However, just because company leaders use complex verbiage and wordsmith elaborate vision or mission statements, it doesn’t mean the words are heard or even understood and effective action is being taken. Being articulate is only part of effective dialog.  Knowing what you intend to communicate and stating it effectively is a beginning, but knowing what is heard and whether the actions taken will reach tangible results completes a true dialog. (Cf. Intuit case study, 1, 2)

I have heard leaders say they are very good listeners, citing great eye contact and an ability to rephrase comments as evidence of good listening skills. Is it? There is more to it according to Broadcaster Celeste Headlee. In her TED Talk she states that talking and listening need to be in balance – a give and take – in order to achieve conversational competence. Headlee indicates that some people have more focus on their smart phone than in the conversational moment. If you are multi-tasking – listening to someone while viewing your mobile phone – how much are we actually hearing? And how respected is the other person feeling? Being fully present in the moment is difficult when organizational chaos reigns, but why have a conversation if you are not going to understand the essence of it, that is, to actually hear what is being said and then take action? (3)

The Hubris vs. Humility Continuum – where do you fall?

In evaluating organizational capabilities, I have found that many leaders have more hubris than humility. Admitting to not doing something well takes courage and many – especially new leaders – are not that courageous. Numerous leaders have told me that since they are “the boss,” they should know more than their staff or employees. They cannot hesitate in what to do and how to do it – otherwise they will not be trusted or respected. Is that the case, however?

Research I conducted in aerospace over eight major company divisions yielded the following discovery: the more leaders shared what they knew and didn’t know – especially during major corporate upheavals – the more they were trusted by employees at all levels. This is even more the case in circumstances of great uncertainty. (4) When company leaders heard this finding, they were surprised at the simplicity of it, but had never truly listened to what employees needed from them. They felt they had to know more than they did.

In a book and related blog “Are you Lying to Yourself about Your Leadership,” Executive Coach Lolly Daskal found two striking leadership beliefs: a) I am in control and b) I am a good listener.  She stressed that, “control is an illusion.” Dropping the need or illusion that you are in control is one step to being a better listener and, therefore, a better leader.  She continues, “There’s a big difference between truly listening and waiting patiently for your turn to speak. One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say … the art of conversation lies in listening.” (5, 6)

The Strategic Conversation

In the early 2000’s, two California State University colleagues and I conducted a 4-year research project – “The Three Giants Study,” involving Hewlett Packard, Los Angeles County and the California State University system. One key learning from the highly successful EVP of HP’s Imaging & Printing Group was – in order to better strategize and innovate, leadership needed to conduct ad hoc strategic conversations with internal and external colleagues, including customers and employees. These conversations needed to be iterative and less formulaic – as had previously been done at HP. 

He humbly stated that the revised approach was due to uncertainty and the chaotic nature of the external environment. The only way this could be done effectively was to fully listen to HP’s constituents, check if the dialog was accurately heard and understood, then iterate plans and actions. There was no flavor of “I am in control” and “my point of view is the onlyconsideration.” Hubris was tabled in place of humbly listening to key constituents. (7)

Are You the Only Expert?

Why do we not listen better even though we know it is important? Do we take the “expert” role, i.e. “I know more than this person or I should know more?” Does this represent more hubris? What if both parties are equally expert, how much listening are they truly engaged in? Unless these experts agree they both have something to learn, no real dialog is taking place. 

Have you been in an important dialog at work and you are formulating your response before the person has finished their input? You are not alone as the other person might well be doing the same. How would you know if your thoughts thoroughly relate to what the other person is saying if they haven’t finished? Mindreading should be left to fortunetellers. If interruptions continually occur, on how much true information or ideas are you connecting? 

In a current study at Stanford, researcher Katherine Hilton examines how people perceive interruptions in conversation.  She found that “listeners’ own conversational styles influence whether they interpret simultaneous, overlapping talk as interruptive or cooperative. We all have different opinions about how a good conversation is supposed to go.” (8) What Hilton calls “high-intensity” speakers tend to be uncomfortable with gaps or silence and aim to engage – but what if they are engaging with a low-intensity speaker who thinks it is rude to interrupt? This mismatch in style can easily lead to major miscommunications. (8)

The study also found a gender disparity with male listeners more likely to view women who interrupted a speaker as “ruder, less friendly and less intelligent” than men who interrupted. (8) With all the workplace challenges – add gender and intensity styles to complicated organizational communications. 

In a McKinsey study, “Skill Shift – Automation and the Future Workforce,” the investigators found that the need for soft skills – social and emotional – will accelerate dramatically and will be second only to technological skills. A major component of social and emotional skills is the ability to hold a conversation where both parties are understood and they mutually achieve their goals. Being able to “read” the other person given their communication styles (e.g. high- or low-intensity) and adjust to the dialog in that moment are critical listening competencies and contribute to communication success. (9)

So now what? 

What can be done for leadership communication breakdowns and poor listening?  Much of the research outlines the complexity of communications. Add style difference, gender, mental models, country of origin, etc. and the workplace complexity becomes exponential. Let’s consider something that has been known for nearly three decades. 

As discussed, knowing is not doing for many leaders, but consider something that is relevant – seek first to understand. (10) Given what we know about leadership, possible hubris, the need for control, and fear of showing weakness, this simple concept needs a reboot for management circles today.  

Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People discusses aspects of personal growth but this one habit is the most relevant for our discussion. In a Huffington Post Blog, Joanne Lang wrote the following and I find few words that say it better: 

If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely … most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare … what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask … consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating. (11)

However, as someone in the conversation you have a responsibility. Ask questions when you don’t understand; make sure you understand the rationale for the other person’s position or the facts being offered. Shaking your head up and down does not tell the other person you “get” it all; you may think you understand, but ensure you truly know. If workplace innovation is dependent on diversity of thought and varying points of view as much of the management literature indicates, validation of the conversational content and any next critical steps is essential. How can an organization be innovative if we think our ideas are the only ideas? 

More Effective Leadership Communication: Insights and Considerations

If you need help in effective listening, what practices should you consider?

  • Evaluate your own listening competencies. Consider 360 inputs to assess your listening capabilities. 
  • Ensure you and your colleague have a common goal. Start a dialog with verbalizing what end result you need and ensure you are aiming in the same direction. Clear outcomes are vital to engagement.
  • Take cues from the other person. Consider their style and assess how to best to “hear” – that is – understand what they are saying. Seek first to understand vs. being understood.
  • Recognize you are not always the expert. Being right is not always what colleagues expect of you. Humility can gain you many points as a respected leader.
  • Be in the moment – truly in the conversation – otherwise it is not a two-way dialog.

What organizations need is full colleague engagement and clear, well-understood communications is vital to organizational commitment. Communicating in a manner where we understand first is a step to organizational effectiveness – where focused listening is bedrock for success. Your employees expect it of you and will be pleased to get it.

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1. https://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/the-knowing-doing-gap-how-smart-companies-turn-knowledge-into-action

2.http://vedpuriswar.org/Book_Review/Leadership_Managerial_Effectiveness/The%20Knowing%20Doing%20Gap.pdf

3. Celeste Headlee is the host of the Georgia Public Broadcasting program "On Second Thought." Previously she was the co-host of the national morning news show The Takeaway, from Public Radio International and WNY.  https://www.facebook.com/TED/videos/10159622445610652/

4. Duron, Shari. A., The Productivity Impacts of Downsizing on Silicon Valley Corporations, Dissertation, GGU, San Francisco CA., 1993

5. Daskal, L., “The Leadership Gap – What gets between you and your greatness,” Portfolio/Penguin, NY, 2017

6. https://www.lollydaskal.com/leadership/lying/

7. Glassman, A., Zell, D. & Duron, S. Thinking Strategically in Turbulent Times. New York, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2005. 

A cross-sector grounded research study comparing Hewlett-Packard, Los Angeles County and California State University Systems and the views of executive leadership on environmental forces influencing strategic decision - making

8. https://news.stanford.edu/2018/05/02/exploring-interruption-conversation/

9. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-organizations-and-work/skill-shift-automation-and-the-future-of-the-workforce

10.Covey, Stephen R., The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, Copyright 1989, 2004, 20013 by Stephen R. Covey

11.  https://www.huffingtonpost.com/joanne-lang/seek-first-to-understand_b_5609892.html


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