One undeniable hallmark of strong leadership that I've been preaching for years is part of its foundation: communication, communication, communication.

In this day and age of corporate scandals and controversies, communication matters. How leaders communicate with and to others is not rocket science, but it can and does require a lot of emotional courage.

All concepts of communication I'm about to demonstrate are learned traits, no matter who you are. For this conversation, I'm going to simplify the practice of great leadership communication into six learned habits that will get results.

1. Use "we" rather than "I" language.

As a leader, you may not be consciously aware of the role language plays. It can build up or tear down your tribe, like using certain "I" statements, as they may come across as critical or bossy. For example, "I want this done like this" or "I need you to make this happen for me" are good examples of "me first" or "I" lingo. On the flip side, "we" language implies that the challenge or problem is the concern and responsibility of both speaker and listener. It suggests inclusion, immediacy, cohesiveness, and commitment. Example: "We need to figure out a system that works more efficiently."

2. Be radically honest.

Wisconsin-based Johnsonville Sausage, the number-one brand of sausages nationwide, has exploded in recent years. When assessing leadership areas for improvement, Johnsonville discovered an all-around need for better communication and interpersonal skills that had bottom-line impact. The company's HR team put together a Crucial Conversations training rooted in radical honesty to step up and handle high-stakes issues to improve company-wide results. Results were dramatic. Teams reported better synergy and unity, and team members found new ways to help one another. The sales team used what they had learned to drastically improve interactions with customers.

3. Listen first.

Effective communication isn't just about talking; great leaders listen intuitively to the other person's story, ask questions, and search conversations for depth, meaning and understanding. On the flip side, leaders driven by hubris have a hard time detaching from their own inner-voices to consider other voices, because they think they're always right. Great leaders are also present and in the moment. They don't need to talk over others to get their point across. To quote former Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen's CEO, Cheryl Bachelder, "The biggest distinction of a leader who serves others versus themselves is the ability to listen. When you listen, you hear peoples' objections, anxieties, and fears -- and you also hear the solutions."

4. Avoid negative metaphors and clichés.

Some leaders sprinkle violent metaphorical language in their business-speak to make it appear like they're in the trenches of warfare behind enemy lines. But not everyone within their sphere of influence can relate to abrasive language like "Let's utterly destroy the competition." These divisive metaphors reinforce win-lose, ego and self-interest over collaboration, unity, and fun. Choosing sincere and positive language will ultimately earn the respect of the entire team.

5. Reset expectations during change. 

Strategies often shift to adapt to a changing business environment. As such, clear expectations have to be reset. While it's easy to point the finger at team members for not pulling their weight or performing up to par, this is a 50-50 problem. Leaders have to take responsibility for making the mistaken assumption that the team fully recognizes their roles and responsibilities during change and transition, or around deadlines. This is an easy fix, usually rooted around the need for more, and clearer, communication.

6. Be specific with negative feedback.

So often we sugarcoat negative feedback to avoid potential conflict, pushback or disapproval. Very human of us! If you have to give negative feedback on performance or a specific behavior, back it up with detailed examples and ask questions for further clarification. Studies also say employees don't get enough positive feedback from their managers. Let them know regularly how they're doing with performance goals and how their work is supporting larger organizational goals. This gives their work meaning and purpose.

Published on: Jan 9, 2019
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