Most leadership writers are overly prescriptive about what it takes to be a leader. Lists and recipes abound. Thought leaders suggest they have discovered the “Holy Grail” of leadership that...
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.” The Captain, Road Prison 36 from Cool Hand Luke
Leadership communication is an interesting topic. We all know that the ability to communicate appropriately is an essential component for every effective leader. Ken Blanchard and Associates reports that 43% of survey respondents identified communication skills as the most critical leadership skill set, while 41% identified the inappropriate use of communication as the number one mistake leaders make. http://www.kenblanchard.com/img/pub/pdf_critical_leadership_skills.pdf.
But it is not just communication that matters. Leaders by definition move people from one place to another – they create change or movement. This requires the leader be able to articulate the goal, the direction and reason for the change. This means the leader must be a compelling communicator. The skill of being a compelling communicator is seldom taught. DDI’s study of the critical leadership skills as related to educational background illustrates the dearth of attention on this important topic.
Two studies add insight into the scarcity of persuasive communication.
First according to a 2011 Job Outlook survey, employers listed verbal communication as a key skill they seek in job candidates, but in which graduates’ expertise is falling short. When asked about teamwork and analytical skills, employers were “very satisfied” with recent graduates’ skill level. However, when it came to verbal communication skills, ratings scored between “somewhat satisfied” and “very satisfied.”
Second, in a 2016 study done by Payscale, managers reported on skills missing in new graduates entering the workplace. The chart below shows what they reported.
These deficient skills are troubling because when the lack of writing, speaking, critical thinking and detail skills are combined they form the basis of the ability to communicate persuasively. One of these skills alone is insufficient. For example, public speaking is central to persuasive communication but the ability to speak in front of people is not sufficient by itself. Comedians are comfortable speaking publicly but comedians are entertainers, who are trying to make people laugh, not change. The fact that critical thinking and attention to detail are the top two missing soft skills indicates that underlying the inability to write and speak is a lack of organization and logic. This is alarming for generations of future leaders because people who cannot speak or write persuasively will find it difficult to lead others.
Persuasive communication is essential to leadership because it is the means by which leaders attract and gain followers as well as one of the main reasons followers stay with their leaders.
Persuasive communication has 3 basic components:
1. The leader owns and supports the message
While the message may have originated many organizational layers higher than the leader who is communicating it, followers carefully notice if a leader owns the message and meaning. No matter how articulate the leader is, if others sense leaders are not willing to put their heart into it, to “own” it, they will not be willing to embrace or support the proposed message. We have all observed leaders who communicate while constantly referring to “they and them”. They carefully insinuate that the message belong to upper management but not to me. This leader is a carrier of the message but avoids personal ownership. The responsibility to present the message is met but not the ownership of the message. Those who listen will react the same way. Support for a message is demonstrated through individual passion and excitement about the direction. Many efforts fail at this point because workers have learned “if it is not good for the goose, it is not good for the gander.”(except in politics of course!)
2. The leader understands and can explain the message
Simply owning and supporting the message is not enough. Leaders must be able to explain the message in a logical way. (This is where detail and critical thinking come in to play). I can remember a situation years ago when I was conducting leadership training in which a participant was reporting on the work her group had done. She started in the middle; rambled around their plan and left everyone in a complete state of confusion. I can remember thinking at the time that this person would have serious problems in ever trying to lead people.
When the leader is able clearly and logically present their message, it demonstrates two things:
a. The leader knows and understands the concept well.
b. Sufficient planning has occurred to make the vision a reality.
There is nothing that diminishes persuasiveness quicker than a message that is confused or illogical. When presenting the message, the leader should consider using one of the following formats so that people create a clear mental picture of what is being [resented.
a. The tried and true military method
i. Tell them what you are going to tell then
ii. Tell them
iii. Tell them what you told them
b. Beginning to end (start to finish)
c. Numbering points: First, second, third,
d. Sequencing: after this is done, this will happen
e. Process format (first step, second step, etc.)
f. Topical (moves from idea to idea, theme to theme, etc.)
g. Chronological (uses time sequences for a framework)
h. Classification (presents information according to discrete categories)
i. Problem/Solution (presents a problem with one or more solutions to it)
In addition the leader should use transitions between main points and summarize periodically so people will understand where they are in the message, what has been covered and what is next to come.
There s a typical pitfall for leaders at this point. Often a leader thinks the message through in their head and it makes perfect sense and is logical. Yet when the presentation is made leaders find themselves stumbling and confused. Delivering a message in a logical way is more difficult than imagining the message in one’s mind. It is not always possible, but when a message is important leaders serve themselves well to practice their presentation beforehand to ensure it is as logical as it appears in their brain.
3. The leader can clearly explain to others why the message is important to them
Logic and excitement by themselves are not enough to persuade others. The leader must also define the “bridge.”
People may hear a message but they will not engage if they do not think that or understand how the message is important to them. Many leaders take this personal application for granted. “If it is important to the company it is important to you”. These leaders believe that others should intuitively realize how and why a message is important. This is a major mistake in persuasive communication.
It is critical that leaders provide a bridge: a pathway between what the message is and why it is important to the individual, the team and the organization. It is a major mistake to take the understanding of the bridge for granted.
The result of ensuring these three elements of persuasive communication are done well is that it plants a seed of confidence. People have rationale on which to engage with the message because what was presented is a legitimate effort that is feasible and logical.
The Result Of Persuasive Communication
Persuasive communication cannot make up for the inadequacies of a poor decision or plan but poor persuasive communication can derail a good plan or decision. Persuasive communication can make the difference between success and failure, the difference between commitment and apathy. Persuasive communication is almost impossible for the negative or skeptical leader.
Over time persuasive communication, when coupled with execution of what is proposed, enhances the trustworthiness of the leader while persuasive communication with faulty execution diminishes credibility and ultimately trust.
For many leaders persuasive communication does not come naturally. It takes time to develop and hone this skill which is becoming rarer in the workplace. When persuasive communication is a part of a genuine and authentic leadership style it becomes one of the most powerful leadership tools in the leader’s toolkit.
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