Listening time: 8 mins
Communication drives action, something all the best leaders inspire in their people. How does applying a human lens to your comms help you reach your goals, and what can you learn from those who forget this important element?
In Aesop’s fable, he tells the story of the ‘The Sun and the Wind’, caught in a dispute about who is the most powerful. During their debate, a traveler appear
s along the road, and they decide to settle their dispute once and for all - the victor will be she who can strip the traveler of his clothes. As the sun retired behind a cloud, the Wind began to blow with all his might, but the more forceful his blasts, the tighter the traveler clung to his coat. At last, resigning all hope of victory, the Wind stepped aside and the Sun shone with all her warmth. No sooner did the traveler feel her warming rays, than he took off one garment after another and bathed in a nearby stream. Aesop alludes to the well-known wisdom here that ‘persuasion is better than force’. Today, coming out of what we hope is Covid's peak and as we adjust to the post-peak reality, effective communication will feature heavily for leaders who successfully unlock business growth over the coming months.
The energy sap (and communications challenge) of increased remote working
As one of the most powerful channels to drive engagement and convey emotion, it remains the case that 93% of human communication is non-verbal. Despite the increasing sophistication of our technology, it can’t yet rival the intuitive ease of in-person interaction - where tiny affectations of tone, body language, and even breathing help convey messages and meaning.
If you’re not convinced about the truth of this, just reflect on how tired you feel after a 2-hour zoom meeting in comparison to one in the flesh. (And yes, there are arguments about the relative energy gains of reduced travel or extra sleep - and these are not without significance - but that doesn’t mean that for the 2 hours you are in a zoom meeting, your body and mind aren’t working extra hard to compensate for the deficiency in sensory stimuli you’d otherwise use to quickly create engagement and connect with your colleagues). It may be that we will adapt to these relatively new parameters in time, but right now understanding this reality and appreciating it is one your people are also faced with, is key to ensuring that you give your messages the best chance of landing.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of tailoring a message to a particular audience or context to drive relevance. Today, the number of divisive ‘contexts’ in which information is received has exploded. Whether it’s those who are homeworking versus those in public-facing roles with exposure to the virus; those who are juggling childcare demands or those in flat-shares and conducting their daily life from one room; those who’ve had their hours dropped, are at risk of redundancy or who’ve taken a pay cut; or those who are busy spending the disposable income they have saved from 18 months of untaken holidays and un-drunk takeaway coffees on reducing their debt, retail therapy, home improvements, or even additional properties.
All of these variables make ensuring a leadership message passes through our human filters without losing its sentiment very challenging. The same message that is experienced as informative, supportive and reassuring by one human might be experienced as grating or inappropriate by another. So what to do?
Moving communication from illusion to reality
George Bernard Shaw once said ‘The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place’. Effective communication is so challenging precisely because it’s so easy for it to fail. Success relies on two things: 1) a clearly defined message, and 2), the recipient hearing it.
This sounds very obvious, but in the context of leading other human beings, not appreciating that the primary burden lies with the deliverer and not the recipient is the number one reason why communications fail. Without really considering how something sounds, you as a leader may render yourself as powerless to ensure your people hear you as the wind is to remove the man’s jacket.
The importance of psychological safety
Great leaders create a sense of belonging, purpose, and psychological safety for their people to enable them to operate less often in fight or flight mode and more often in a creative, resourceful mental and emotional space. For most businesses, now more than ever, the traditional, top-down communications approach simply doesn’t work, with a rapidly changing world that offers little basis on which to make the typical assurances. More importantly, it doesn’t provide the necessary insight to respond to what is a constantly evolving reality. I’ve lost count of the number of leaders in the past 18 months who have told me that it is not just from their senior leaders but from all around their organisation that ideas for survival strategies have emerged, in many cases helping them anticipate issues before they actually happen. Think of Nike’s 2018 PR disaster where a group of women from the Oregan headquarters responded to unaddressed complaints of harassment and misconduct by taking things into their own hands - creating their own workplace survey and delivering the results not only directly to the CEO Mark Parker but also to the external market.
The key issue lay with the lack of communication channels to enable employees to be heard without having to take matters into their own hands; a lack that ultimately compromised the organisation's ability to manage risk.
Public and internal trust have been creeping up the agenda for the past decade, nearing (if not topping in some sectors) the leaderboard - a theme only further accentuated by the pandemic. With a shift towards a more inclusive approach, integrity is key. Take the famous example of BP’s legendary oil spill in 2010. Following the disaster, BP’s PR team invested in a series of expensive commercials and profuse public apologies. The public found the response disingenuous, and along with President Obama, criticised BP for investing such large sums into ads rather than cleaning up the mess. When Tony Hayward, then CEO, commented ‘I’d like my life back’ he suffered a huge backlash for a perceived lack of respect for those who had lost their lives in the disaster. The internal damage isn't overt but was no doubt significant.
Increasingly, personal awareness helps successful leaders to avoid alienating their internal and external audiences by cutting through filters and connecting on a deeper level with their people, their customers and their partners.
Using communication to make your vision happen
Communication spurs action, and embracing your responsibility as a leader to ensure messages are truly heard is one of the most powerful ways to influence change. Communication is by its very nature personal, and creating a feedback loop which enables you to incorporate other realities (outside of your own), generating insight you can factor into the leadership decisions you make each day. As human beings we all have egos; and egos often reject messages that don’t come from a trusted, respected source. To be respected and valued you need to communicate with the same values you would apply to yourself - essentially human ones. If you unintentionally layer on notes of self-interest in your tone, like Tony Hayward did, you can almost guarantee your message will be rejected. If your people are like the man walking by the roadside in Aesop’s fable, they will simply wrap their armory around themselves more tightly to shelter from the storm. And rejection of your messages can look like anything from Nike’s blind spot and the associated talent and reputational losses they suffered, to a reduction in your productivity levels, a souring of your culture, or your most valuable assets walking out of the door.
The leaders I’ve worked with who communicate best, take time and effort to understand how their message fits into their audience’s agenda; they focus on building psychological safety and on minimising the effect of contextual filters that might create barriers, working throughout from a human perspective.
Every leader has the potential to make a big difference in their business results, the lives of those they lead, and the wider community from something as seemingly basic as communicating well. So ask yourself – how warm are your people feeling and can they hear you right now?
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