Seven communication mistakes leaders can avoid

1. Over-reliance on ‘big events’

Did you ever stay with an employer, and put in extra effort, because their town-hall meetings were so good? Didn’t think so. Yes, it’s terrific that your organisation holds a quarterly global webcast, and even better if you are part of a company small enough to bring everyone together for occasional town-hall meetings. These big events are a great platform to build followership for leaders, launch new projects or initiatives, or update people on company results. But, and it’s a big BUT, you should think of these events as tasters or teasers, not depend on them to deliver your entire communication agenda.

2. Not equipping your managers to communicate effectively

Did you ever leave a company because your manager seemed to be keeping you in the dark about what was going on? If you did, you probably wouldn’t be alone. Many people see their manager as the ‘single source of truth’ at work, their primary source of reliable information. You can’t expect your managers to be effective in this role based on a weekly email of speaking notes; meaningful and robust dialogue, where managers are encouraged to ask their leaders the hard questions, the ones they expect from their team members, will help to ensure that managers can step up to a communication leadership role. Unfortunately, in many workplaces, managers are discouraged from questioning or challenging (nothing kills a 21st century career quicker than a hint of ‘negativity’). But if I, as a manager, can’t raise questions or concerns with you, my leader, in a safe environment, then how can I help my team when they raise the same questions or concerns with me?

3. Communicating nothing until you can communicate everything

Take a copy of your newspaper of choice and mark the number of stories in the first four pages that are essentially ‘incomplete’. We read that ‘a man has been charged’ with some offense or other, but not who he is; we discover that ‘researchers are close to a breakthrough’ in curing a disease– but not how close and when the cure will be available. There are numerous examples like this in any good newspaper every day – do readers ring up and protest at the lack of fine detail? Probably not. In general people can cope with a certain level of ambiguity. Within the constraints of market sensitive information, assuming you make and keep commitments to update people regularly, it is better to bring people on the journey with you than to spring a fully-baked solution on them and then expect them to buy into it.

4. Confusing the communication platform with the communication objective

How does your organisation communicate? Hint – this is not the same question as ‘what channels and platforms does your organisation use to communicate’.  If you were asked to talk about nutrition in your family you would probably not discuss griddles or microwave ovens, you’d reference freshly prepared meals using good ingredients, you would talk about your aspiration to have balanced meals that meet nutrition needs. And yet, when you ask many people how their organisation communicates, they tell you about intranets, town-hall meetings and internal social media platforms. Make sure your communication strategy considers your communication values and aspirations as well as talking about platforms and channels. A new strategy, or a strategic review, can trigger a robust leadership discussion around your organisation’s communication objectives, principles and philosophy.

5. Avoiding the harsh reality

Yes, it is much more agreeable to communicate good news and company achievements than to talk about the challenges the business faces. But let’s be honest here – if sales in one product line are down 30%, or a major contract has been lost, or the newest territory is not picking up the expected pace – do you think nobody in your company knows? How do you want them to interpret your silence on the topic? Maybe it signals that it’s not important enough to mention, maybe it suggests that you don’t have a plan to deal with it or haven’t been briefed properly about it, possibly you’re trying to conceal the truth? There really isn’t an answer that makes you look like a strong leader. Talk about it, be honest, don’t attribute blame or create scapegoats – talk about the reality of the setback, talk about the next steps being taken, commit to keeping people up to date.

6. Confusing style with substance

Great slides, professionally produced video, and polished newsletters all play a valid role in great communication activity. But the usefulness and relevance of the content of your communication to the needs of the individual employee is the really important thing. In Texas there is an expression ‘all hat, no cattle’. Make sure your communication activity isn’t ‘all hat’. Always start your communication planning with consideration of the message not the channel or medium.

7. Not partnering effectively with your communication manager

Your communication manager is a resource – not just to help with wordsmithing great messages, or for the creation of professional materials. By nurturing a strong reciprocal trusting relationship you can ensure that your communication manager will be a source of great feedback on how you are doing, a useful coach, and, sometimes, will be the only person who will tell you what’s actually going on when everyone else has decided you might be better off not knowing. So, by all means use your communication manager to help execute your communication plans but consider whether there is much more to be gained by achieving a deeper level of collaboration.

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