Effective communication skills and successful leadership are increasingly closely related.
While communication is often categorised as a soft skill, leaders can no longer pay lip service to the ability to communicate effectively.
Leaders need strong communication skills to share their vision, express ideas, convey information, persuade, influence, inspire, inform and show they care.
And to build strong relationships and trust.
But how do you become an effective communicator? What does good communication look like in the workplace?
And how can you avoid communication mistakes?
What exactly is effective communication, and why has it become so important?
Definitions will vary. But essentially, communicating effectively means information is sent and received accurately.
That may sound simple, but it requires a shift in focus, as Laura Balcombe, one of our leadership and management tutors explains.
"Effective communication is about exchanging information," she said.
"Leaders can get caught up in the message they want to communicate and don’t consider how the receivers could interpret it.
“They can fall into a trap of seeing communication as a one-way street – ‘I’ve got this thing I want to say, and this is how I am going to deliver it’.
“But there are external factors that might impact how it is received and see it become diluted or misconstrued.
“So, there is a challenge and a balance to be found between giving the minimum amount of detail to avoid things being misconstrued, and oversharing and having to make changes that may make it feel like you were unclear in your approach."
In a word, huge.
Effective communication skills can help create a healthy workplace culture, reduce misunderstanding, boost team building, improve retention, encourage innovation, remove conflict and enhance employee engagement.
Clear communication makes life easier for everyone.
And this, in turn, can boost productivity and profit margins.
The value of effective communication has also increased with the continued popularity of hybrid working.
Saphire Kumar, another one of our expert leadership and management tutors, said: "Hybrid working has made leadership communication skills more important.
"Many homeworkers feel disconnected and, while we all strive for autonomy, a sense of belonging is also important for human beings.
"Without having that strong relationship with your leader, and a clear sense of direction, it is easy to feel isolated and demotivated.
"And it is harder for leaders to keep their workforce engaged because it needs to be done remotely."
Poor communication, on the other hand, can be costly.
Research shows it can cost UK businesses an average of £7,675 per employee each year.
A survey by The Economist showed the repercussions of an inability to communicate effectively include delays to the completion of projects, increased stress and lowered morale.
So, how can leaders develop their communication skills? How can they improve their communication habits?
Developing effective workplace communication starts with a leader becoming a good listener, paying attention and being open to feedback.
You may think you communicate effectively, but how do you know?
Effective communication is a cycle that should start and end with the communicator. They deliver a message and then receive a response that they should use to adapt how they communicate in future.
Laura said: "As a leader, you have to be bold and courageous and open up those feedback channels knowing what you get back will be honest.
“You have to remember that it will be useful. Leaders can have a fear of not wanting to open a can of words or poke a bear.
“But if staff are disengaged, unclear or unsure about something, that will fester. It won’t go away because you don’t hear about it.
“But if you open feedback channels, you might find it improves engagement and employees feel they have a voice and feelings of autonomy, influence and importance.
“And that is crucial now where we are moving away from this idea of people being cogs in a machine."
This active listening needs to be continuous.
"Don’t communicate something and then listen," Laura said. "Leaders need to play the long game and ensure they are always listening.
“If people feel heard and acknowledged, they are more likely to buy into what you are communicating to them.”
Don't attempt to be flawless.
Leaders do not need to be perfect. The best leaders realise this and strive to improve communication skills and other abilities.
“There can be pressure on leaders to come across as the finished product, and that can mean they think asking for feedback is a sign of weakness," Laura said.
“But there is more of a move towards continual development, improvement and marginal gains now, even at the top of organisations.
“There is always room to improve, and it isn’t a sign of weakness or being unsure of yourself.
“Modern businesses need to be agile. And leaders need to be agile in their perception of themselves and how they can improve.”
Understanding context is another part of effective communication for leaders.
It impacts the importance the receivers place on the message and how they respond.
Whether they are the CEO, part of the senior leadership team, a team leader or a middle manager, all leaders need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of others.
Laura said: “Leaders may not be aware of things happening lower down the company or in particular departments. We all have things going on in our lives.
"And not having that context can impact how communication is received.
“That can be a tricky one to tackle.
“But one solution is for leaders to engage the middle managers, ensure the messages are clear to them, and identify any challenges it could face, so they can be ironed out.
“If the message goes out and there is some pushback, ensure those middle managers are empowered to provide clarity, reinforce and make it applicable."
Emotional intelligence is a hot topic in leadership and plays an integral role in good communication skills and overcoming common barriers to effective communication in the workplace.
Effective communicators are aware of their emotions.
And through self-control, they can communicate thoughts and ideas confidently.
But emotional intelligence also involves understanding how your actions and word impact others.
“Your emotions, thoughts and feelings influence your behaviour," Laura said. "That influences someone else’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. And the cycle goes on.
“Self-awareness isn’t just about how you are thinking and feeling. It is also about how your behaviour impacts others and the way they receive your communication.
“Don’t just look at effective communication in the workplace from your perspective and seeing yourself as the source.
"Remember, communication should be a loop.
“If we think of it in terms of the marketing terms ‘push’ and ‘pull’ communication, many leaders push messages out and don’t think about the additional things people might need or the level of detail they could want to pull to themselves.
“There needs to be more focus on how the message could be interpreted and actioned."
These are perhaps more obvious tips, but the role of clarity and concise communication cannot be underestimated.
Does the message you want to get across mean what you think it means?
Will they understand what you want them to do?
Or is there room for confusion and assumption?
What evidence or examples can you use to support the message?
Sticking to the active voice in your communication can aid comprehension and make it more compelling, as sentences are typically less wordy and more conversational. For example, 'Adam wrote the blog' (active voice) sounds better than 'the blog was written by Adam' (passive voice).
Clarity also comes from being concise. Everyone has their demands, pressures and deadlines. So, get to the point.
And don't assume knowledge. Saphire said: "Leaders sometimes assume the other person knows what they mean without clearly explaining. An example of this might be using jargon or acronyms and assuming everyone knows what these words mean. We shouldn’t expect people to know everything."
Communication occurs all the time in lots of different ways.
Effective communication involves using the right channel at the right time, depending on the message you need to get across and the preference of the people who need to hear it.
It could be an online meeting, an all-staff meeting, a video update, an email or presentation, to give a few examples. It might require one-on-one meetings.
“There is a noise and interference factor to consider with choosing the right medium," Laura said. "Before the pandemic, when everyone was in the office, you would hold team meetings and communicate your finely tuned and rehearsed message.
“But now there are multiple considerations around locality and mode of delivery. If you communicate through a written format, how are you checking it has been read and understood?
“If you deliver it through Zoom or Teams, how can you ensure they are focused on what you are saying.”
Effective communication is not just about what you say.
It is also about how you say it.
It can be easy to overlook the importance of body language. But your nonverbal communication can make all the difference.
Effective communication involves being conscious of what your body language says and ensuring it aligns with your message.
Maintaining eye contact and facial expressions, like smiling, impact the perception of the effectiveness of leaders and whether people trust what they say.
Sitting up when someone talks and nodding can show you are an active listener and take what others say seriously.
Tilting your head to side slightly can suggest curiosity and an eagerness to gain further information and learn more.
Negative body language, such as having your arms folded, can suggest you are not open to other perspectives and ideas.
There is often some debate about whether voice is part of body language.
Regardless, tone of voice is a vital communication skill. It can impact morale, motivation and trust.
If you need to deliver bad news, a lower tone can show authority and an understanding of the seriousness of the situation.
A higher pitch can help show your enthusiasm for a project or initiative.
Storytelling is a crucial communication skill for leaders.
Bringing stories into your communication style helps create credibility and rapport - it enables speakers to find common ground with their audience.
It captures attention, entertains and keeps people engaged.
It also evokes emotions - vital for persuading and influencing.
"People connect and engage much better when they have shared experiences," Saphire said.
Another key aspect of effective communication is the ability to self-edit.
Leaders with good communication skills monitor and choose their words carefully because they are sensitive to their impact on others.
They are attuned to their audience and can read the room.
They can read body language clues in their audience that show whether they are engaged, confused, frustrated by what is being discussed and need more clarity, empathy or sensitivity.
And they adjust their message and delivery accordingly at certain points.
Effective communication can sometimes be as much about what you leave out as it is about what you say.
Communication should not be one-way.
We described effective communication earlier in this blog as an exchange.
So, another effective communication skill for leaders to develop is the ability to ask good questions (and not just leaving them for a job interview).
Questions help leaders cut through the noise and get to the crux of an issue.
They can bring clarity to a subject for others.
They empower workers to share their thought and ideas and exchange information.
And they can challenge people and teams to reflect on their performance and seek to improve.
These questions should be supported by active listening. Showing you are engaged in what they say will encourage others to speak up and communicate their thoughts and opinions.
We constantly stress the importance of preparation during our communication training.
It is at the heart of good communication skills.
Whatever the format - regardless of whether it is to the whole organisation, team communication or a one-on-one - leaders must be clear on who they are communicating to, what they want to get across and what resistance they could face.
Leaders are increasingly under the microscope.
And when their communication goes badly wrong, it doesn't only alienate employees and stakeholders.
It can also result in negative media coverage.
Ask the employees of MillerKnoll if they felt their boss had communicated effectively when she addressed concerns in the sales team about not getting their bonuses by telling them to "leave pity city".
Video footage of that online meeting was leaked and went viral.
The company also found itself denying reports employees who spoke out about the video would be sacked.
James Clarke, the boss of tech marketing firm Clearlink, found himself at the centre of a backlash after telling his workforce he had run out of patience with them complaining about a new return to the office policy. During a virtual meeting, he also celebrated a worker who felt forced to sell the family dog to be able to return to the office.
These examples show how easily it can be for leadership communication to go wrong and for leaders to appear out of touch with their employees.
A wealthy boss criticising people for worrying about their bonus when it could be the difference between going on holiday or paying the mortgage, suggests leaders are out-of-touch with the plight of their workforce, lack empathy and do not practice active listening to understand concerns.
Leaders need to be mindful that virtual meetings can be recorded and shared.
And if they plan on holding meetings with large numbers of employees, speaking on podcasts or at external events, they should practice what they will say with their comms team - or a suitably trained colleague.
It can help identify anything that could be controversial – or create the wrong impression - and anticipate difficult questions that could be asked and put the speaker under pressure. If awkward questions are anticipated, leaders must plan how to answer them.
There are many metrics you could use.
And it is crucial to remember results won't only show whether leaders have good communication skills. Effective internal communication, media relations and stakeholder management will also have an impact.
There is a great demand for talent, and post-pandemic, we all witnessed the Great Resignation, with an increased employee willingness to reconsider where and when they work.
So, staff retention rates and turnover can be vital metrics of workplace effective communication.
Surveys provide regular indicators of how the workforce feels.
Communication impacts productivity, so that's another measurement to consider.
One that is perhaps more often overlooked is employee advocacy.
If your workforce is following your accounts and sharing company updates on their social media platforms, it could be a sign of good communication. A shortage of likes and shares may indicate a lack of engagement.
What are the click rates like on your intranet sites and electronic newsletters?
It is crucial organisations and their leaders show empathy, kindness and an appreciation of the different challenges people face. And their concerns about the future.
Leaders must understand what matters to their employees and be able to discuss those issues effectively.
Blogs like this can help. But they are no substitute for proper leadership communication training for building effective communication skills.
Our courses help leaders develop their personal communication style, emotional intelligence and leadership skills so they communicate with clarity and confidence.
And become a good communicator.
The BCF Group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.
Please see below for some related courses and qualifications which you may be interested in:
Even before the coronavirus lockdowns, more workplace communication was taking place remotely through video conferencing software.
Whether your organisation uses Zoom or Teams, the flexibility offered by these formats means they are here to stay.
And that means the skills needed to communicate on them effectively have never been more important.
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Run over a single day, the course covers a wide range of topics to give new and inexperienced managers a good understanding of the foundations needed to begin their journey as a manager.
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