What Great Bosses Know about Powerful Communication

Managers are expected to be good communicators. Unfortunately, their organizations don’t always help them master the necessary skills. Too often, the company’s training in the area of communications is aimed at avoiding legal liability: don’t share proprietary company information without permission, don’t violate employee privacy regarding personnel issues, don’t use inappropriate language — in other words, don’t talk yourself into trouble.

But effective communication is about so much more than not sticking your foot in your mouth. Employees look to their leaders for everything from information to inspiration. Many are still looking.

The authors of the book “Strategic Organizational Communication in a Global Economyput it well:

“One of the most consistent findings in research on organizations is that subordinates want their supervisors to keep them informed and feel that they receive too little relevant and useful information from their supervisors, especially about events, policies and changes directly involving them and their jobs.”

Effective communication isn’t just about quantity; it’s about quality, too. That’s why today’s column and podcast offer tips to help you improve your communication with staff. Start with the assumption that people are hungry for information and it is your job to feed them, but to do so strategically. That means you know precisely why, how and to whom you dispense data on both an ongoing and a situational basis.

With that bias for being a strong, strategic communicator as a beginning, here are four things you can do to build your effectiveness.

Abandon management-speak. Pepper your messages with terms like “right-size,” “paradigm shift,” or “employee empowerment” — phrases rarely used by the staff itself — and you’ll lose credibility. As I mentioned to a recent management seminar group at Poynter, I can’t help but chuckle at all the hard-nosed, bottom-line managers who, when talking about their employees, say they want them to “embrace change.” Embrace? Sounds almost romantic, doesn’t it? Like some kind of transition tango. Just say it plain: understand, accept, adapt, or even master the challenges of change. That way your people won’t think you’ve had a computer chip planted in your brain during one too many management retreats.

Do a 360-degree mental walkaround with your message before delivering it. Whenever you’re about to distribute important information, take a moment to look in every direction around it. Ask yourself who else has a stake in the situation. You may be clear on your intentions and focused on the information’s value to your team, but without the 360-degree walk, your report may come as an unwelcome surprise or unintended slight to other employees. A message of kudos may leave someone out. A reminder about policy may appear to be a public criticism of individuals. A chipper announcement of change may seem callous toward those who lost something in the process. Smart bosses often run important messages past a trusted co-worker in advance to make certain their words deliver exactly the message they intend — to everyone.

Watch your language. Similes, metaphors and cultural references are powerful rhetorical devices. They can entertain and inspire, especially if they resonate with the interests and values of your staff. But they can backfire if they’re exclusionary. Some bosses reference the movies, music and TV shows of their own generation, assuming their experience is universally shared. Some use sports analogies, thinking everyone’s a knowledgeable fan. Some use colloquial language that leaves people in the room feeling devalued. Who gets to decide if a tech expert is called a geek or a photographer is called a shooter? Even if they use that term for themselves, does it feel the same when managers use it? And don’t get me started on loaded gender language. In a meeting many years ago, I turned to male colleagues who had the habit of describing courage vis-a-vis male anatomical parts and said with a smile, “This is a tough decision, but I think we all have the ovaries for it, don’t we?” They got the message.

Know when to speak in specifics and when in generalities. As a rule, managers should strive to provide clarity in their messages, and specificity does that. Details, context, next steps — they’re all important. But there are some times when ambiguity is actually helpful. A leader may share a vision for a goal and intentionally leave some details open so followers can help design the road map to success. In a brainstorming session, the head of a group might hold off expressing his or her own opinions to keep people from self-censoring. The authors of “The Art of Framing: Managing the Language of Leadership” believe ambiguity can have a place in negotiation and conflict resolution:

“Explicit acknowledgment of a hopeless impasse can end a conversation when ambiguous language might preserve the opening for options not yet discovered. Explicit language assessing blame or fault can cause people to lose face so that they may find it impossible to continue in the relationship.”

Managers should weigh the specificity/ambiguity decision with great care, recognizing that too much ambiguity, especially in times of change, can increase fear, rumors and conflicting interpretations of strategy and tactics. Whenever a leader feels the need for ambiguity, I suggest they get a second opinion, set a time limit on how long they’ll stick with the abstract approach, and begin working on a plan for transitioning to concrete details.

Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. You can download a complete series of these podcasts free on iTunesU. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information on leadership and management that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and all walks of life.

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