You could see communication as the chartreuse feather boa of leadership skills: a garish, fluffy triumph of style over substance. Surely a sound grasp of strategy matters more than a big mouth? Yet try to imagine a great leader who’s also a hopeless communicator, and you’ll draw a blank.
Great strategies and brilliant ideas mean little if no one understands them. You could be the very embodiment of the authentic, purposeful, innovative, open and supportive culture that your firm needs, but it will do you no good if you never leave your corner office.
Someone who knows a thing or two about getting a message across is author and TED Talk maestro Simon Sinek (his talk Start With Why is the third most viewed on the platform). Here are his top tips for using communication to be a better leader.
1. Everything you do is communication
If you think the only messages you send are the ones you’ve carefully crafted and then bcc’d to the company email list, think again. Every decision you make tells your employees something, for good or for ill.
Sinek contrasts the divergent career paths of toxic high performers (we all know the type) on the one hand and on the other those nice but often overlooked team players who make the office a more pleasant place to be, but don’t break any records for individual performance.
"If we promote a bastard, it’s basically saying to the rest of the company we don’t care if you lie, cheat or steal, so long as you make your numbers you’ll do just fine here," he says.
"If we recognise honesty and integrity as conditions for working in our company, it’s also a piece of communication: no matter how good your numbers are, if you lie, cheat and steal you have no place here."
Think carefully therefore about the messages your actions might be sending out. If you’re not sure, ask people. Listening is the other half of communication, after all.
2. The tortoise always beats the hare
Let’s say your team is languishing creatively. They’re disengaged and rarely speak up, but you know they’ve got more than they’re giving. The missing ingredient could well be psychological safety: you want them to feel safe, so they can bring their whole selves to work (particularly, in this case, their brains).
Short of ordering them to feel safe, how can you communicate that?
"As social animals, we respond to our environment. If the boss walks in and says you’ve missed your numbers for the third quarter in a row, if you don’t pick them up I can’t guarantee your job, how excited and inspired are you going to be? If the boss comes in and says you’ve missed your numbers again, are you okay, I’m worried about you, then that’s the kind of environment that makes us feel safe," explains Sinek.
"It’s about consistency vs intensity. Intensity is going to the dentists twice a year. Consistency’s brushing your teeth. What’s the value of brushing your teeth for two minutes? Nothing... unless you do it every single day."
The practice of good communication – and indeed good management – is therefore little and often. "You walk into the office and ask someone how they are and you actually care about the answer. You get yourself a cup of coffee and without asking get one for your colleague. You hold the lift door open even though you’re running late for a meeting. That’s the practice of leadership. What’s the impact? Once, nothing. Twice, zero. But I promise if you do these little innocuous things over time people will start to trust you more and you can create an environment where people care about each other."
A word of warning though: just as you can improve a culture with microbehaviours, you can also make it worse with bad habits.
3. Don’t try too hard
For leaders, communication often means persuasion. You need your team to buy into an idea or strategy, even though you know they have their doubts. Or you’re making a business deal and you need to convince the other side it’s worth it.
Language matters in persuasion, as does medium: some people won’t respond to a given message if it’s phrased formally and delivered in writing, but will react if it’s informal and comes during a chat in the kitchen.
But adapting the message only goes so far. Some people just won’t budge. "Don’t try to convince them,’ says Sinek. "If they’re addicted to sweets, who am I to tell them they should eat spinach?"
Instead, find the people who are already interested, and focus on them. "It’s the law of diffusion of innovations. I don’t care about the majority, I care about the early adopters and innovators. If I can get 15-18 per cent of them to see things a certain way, there’s a tipping point and everyone comes along."
Image credit: Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for Massachusetts Conference for Women 2019