Communication﹘ it’s an activity that humans engage in all day, every day. Whether it’s face-to-face, through an email, or in an old-fashioned written note, interaction with other humans in the hope that we will share a mutual understanding of a specific topic is essential to both life in modern-day society and our very survival. At this point, we all communicate so often that we must be concrete experts on the subject, right? Wrong.
Humans are surprisingly ineffective when it comes to leadership communication. This can be a serious issue for leaders looking to inspire action from employees. There are a few common myths we’ve learned that can hinder leaders from being their most effective.
Communication Myth #1: Meaning is transmitted from person to person.
When you send an email to a coworker, you are doing so with the understanding that the sentences you compose on your computer will be transferred verbatim to their computer. Many of us apply the same logic to meaning﹘ that the words you choose will convey your meaning to the person you’re speaking with in exactly the way you intended.
Unfortunately, it’s not so clear cut. Yes, words are transferred from person to person. But, unlike your daily email correspondence, the intent behind those words can be “sent” one way but “received” by the listener in a totally different way. Each person uses their own unique personal experiences and knowledge to decode your words. Since historically their life is different than yours, the transmission of your intended meaning can’t be guaranteed.
Communication Myth #2: Words have meaning.
Think of a situation in which your intended meaning was not clearly conveyed to someone you were speaking to. You might’ve thought something along the lines of, “If I just find the right words to express this, then they’ll understand.” Yet upon paraphrasing your message, the listener still didn’t fully grasp it. We’ve all been in this frustrating situation.
Every experience that life brings you allows you to add to your personal “dictionary.” Though you may speak the same language as someone, you can’t operate under the assumption that the words we are using hold the same meaning to them as they do to you. Words may have official definitions, but your listener is ultimately the one who assigns their meaning.
Communication Myth #3: The clearer the communication the better.
Just because your message is objectively “clear” doesn’t mean that it will be effective. For example, when providing constructive feedback to an employee, the clearest way of saying something might actually hurt the listener’s self-esteem or cause a fall-out between you rather than encourage them to address the issue at hand. Because of this, clarity is not the sole indicator of effectiveness.
Also, considering what we’ve discussed above, consistent, clear communication is a white whale. You might think you are laying your message out in the most clear-cut, no-nonsense way possible. But even the most concise, thought-out statement from you may, in fact, hold a completely different meaning to those receiving it.
An Example in Poor Leadership Communication
Imagine a leader who wants to inspire an outstanding employee to excel even more. The leader may want to groom the employee for a promotion. The leader meets with the employee and describes a challenging opportunity which would have definitely motivated the leader in his/her earlier days. The employee listens and responds by saying, “Sounds exciting, thank you.” The leader feels successful. However, the employee may feel threatened by this challenge and could even begin thinking about leaving the organization.
The antidote for the above myths does not come from working harder to find better words or from blaming the other person for not listening correctly. The answer comes from becoming more conscious about how leadership communication works and caring enough to follow through to find out what the employee thinks, what he/she feels, what the conversation means to him/her. Such is when the communication becomes more effective – finding out what the other person is leaving with not just remembering the words that were spoken.