The Problem As I See It
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not your tone of voice or your body language, it has nothing to do with your delivery and it’s not about your communication style. In fact, there may not even be an issue with the content of your communication. It’s not your message today or right now that is the problem, it’s that your communication in aggregate isn’t a message at all. What I mean to say is that if we look at what you’ve communicated over the last 2 weeks, 3 or 6 months, there is no core message…no key take-away, therefore no clear communication. If we line up your messages from the last 6 months, we have a collection of disparate, maybe even conflicting messages, with no single message and no clear priorities. You’re not alone though; the biggest contributor to leadership improvement is communication.
Conditions that Create the Problem
1.Their Agenda Not Mine
This blasting of confused and inconsistent communication happens under two circumstances. First, much of what leaders communicate is not a message they crafted. Often it is a message that has been pushed up to them by a group in the organization looking for a “champion”. I’ve sat in on dozens of strategy and change management sessions where the conversation goes something like this. “Hey, we’ve got to get people’s buy-in for this idea (change, strategy, concept, etc.) to work. Who is respected or has seniority in the organization and would be willing to champion our message?” We then brainstorm different people of respect and authority throughout the organization, select the chosen ones and begin selling them on our message. Everyone likes to be courted, so after we’ve courted him or her with our message, they are prepared to go out and share the word. The problem is that two of leadership’s primary roles are alignment and sensemaking. This approach to communication presents a serious problem for both alignment and sensemaking, because blasting out messages form various groups with differing agendas only increases the chaos and confusion.
2. Fighting Fires by Spreading the Flames
The second condition that leads to confounding communication is the leader who uses communication to fight fires. This is the leader who over-communicates about the daily fires they are putting out, so the organization or team gets a new set of priorities every day; priorities that are dependent on the fires that happen to be burning today. The fire becomes a priority for the leader and so they communicate as though it should be a priority for everyone and rarely is this the case. This leader has no filter for their communication, often in the more ways than one. In fact, this approach is so common that we casually joke about people without filters, but having a filter is more than the ability to think twice or avoid foul language.
What’s to be done
As a leader, you should have a set of criteria and filters for the messages that you are communicating. Chances are that those criteria and filters already exist in the organization, they’re just underutilized; think organizational values, long-term strategy and current initiatives. It should be easy for your team and organization to see how your communication aligns to the organization’s values, reinforces the long-term strategy and relates to a current initiative. If this isn’t clear and easy, you haven’t used the right criteria and haven’t filtered your communication.
Criteria are used to determine what makes it into your communication stream; it’s the approval process for whether something is in or out.
Filters are the specifics you use to craft the actual message. If something meets the criteria of alignment to values, long-term strategy and current initiatives, then it goes through the filters to ensure those receiving the communication see the connections.
I’ve seen this done several ways, sometimes overtly as literal criteria/filters that leaders use to rate their communication against and sometimes covertly in the form of a quick mental assessment. The key is to have some clear criteria/filters that you consistently use and to periodically review your communication to see how well you’ve applied those criteria and filters. A great starting point is to ask your team what consistent message they feel like they’ve received from you over the past 6 months. Asking team members individually and then collectively will give you a better picture of what you’ve actually communicated.
So, here’s the reality, you can’t be a strategic leader if the most powerful tool you have as a leader isn’t strategic. By using the right criteria and filters, you can ensure that you communicate the organization’s strategy, embedding it into the organization through consistency and clarity.
I would love to hear the approach you use to ensure that your communication in aggregate creates alignment and aids in sensemaking, please share so that we can all strengthen this aspect of our communication as leaders.
If you would like some input on putting together strategic criteria for your role or organization,I would be happy to help. Just remember KISS…Keep It Simple & STRATEGIC! And reach out to me or my partners.