15 Tips for Effective Communication in Leadership

When done well, leadership communication inspires trust and positive change.

Why Communication Is So Important for Leaders

Good communication is a core leadership function and a key characteristic of a good leader. Effective communication and effective leadership are closely intertwined. As a leader, you need to be a skilled communicator in countless relationships at the organizational level, in communities and groups, and sometimes on a global scale in order to achieve results through others.

Leaders must be able to think with clarity, express ideas, and share information with a multitude of audiences. They must also handle the rapid flows of information within the organization and among customers, partners, vendors, and other stakeholders and influencers.

Why Is Communication Important in Leadership?

Communication is more complicated than the simple mechanics of sending and receiving information — when leaders harness the ability to communicate well, they translate important data quickly and accurately. 

Communication is one of the most important skills a leader can have. It takes purpose and intention to implement effective communication. You must know how and when to communicate, and select the appropriate mode for your audience. Whether writing, conversing, presenting, or facilitating, leaders must excel at communication in all of these modes. It’s the only way to meet people’s individual needs and enable important human connections. 

3 Important Facts About Communication for Leaders

1. Authenticity counts — a lot.

Be honest and sincere. Find your own voice; avoid using corporate-speak or sounding like someone you’re not. Let who you are, where you come from, and what you value come through in your communication. People want, respect, and will follow authentic leadership. Forget about eloquence — worry about being real. Don’t disguise who you are. People will never willingly follow someone they feel is inauthentic.

2. Visibility is a form of communication.

If you want to communicate well, be accessible. Emails and official missives aren’t enough. Be present, visible, and available. Getting “out there” — consistently and predictably — lets others know what kind of leader you are. People need to see and feel who you are to feel connected to the work you want them to do. Find ways to interact with all of your stakeholder groups, even (and especially!) if communicating in a crisis.

3. Listening is a powerful skill.

Good communicators are also good listeners. When you listen well, you gain a clear understanding of another’s perspective and knowledge. Listening fosters trust, respect, openness, and alignment. Active listening is a key part of coaching others. Allow people to air their concerns. Ask powerful questions that open the door to what people really think and feel. Pay close, respectful attention to what is said — and what’s left unsaid.

15 Critical Tips for Leaders to Communicate More Effectively

1. Communicate relentlessly.

Communicate information, thoughts, and ideas clearly — and frequently — in different media. Keep processes open and transparent, and find ways to help smooth the path of communication for your team, employees, or organization. Shed all traces of detachment and arrogance, and take the time to talk to your people.

2. Set clear expectations.

In every relationship, our behavior is guided by a set of rules or social norms — and in a professional setting, these norms tend to go unspoken. Be intentional about establishing clear expectations and team norms at your organization, whether you’re sending an email to your entire team, leading a group discussion, or having a one-on-one conversation with a direct report.

3. Simplify and be direct.

Say what you mean. Be direct. Don’t hide behind complexity or pile on a ton of information. Direct communication can be the most important type of communication. This is even more important when communicating in a virtual setting.

4. Illustrate through stories. 

When you tell a good story, you give life to a vision, goal, or objective. Telling good stories creates trust, captures hearts and minds, and serves as a reminder of the vision. Plus, people find it easier to repeat a story or refer to an image or quote than to talk about a mission statement, strategy document, or project plan. This is key when communicating the vision. Your ability to create and communicate a compelling, authentic, and bold story will also help you bolster your leadership brand. 

5. Be prepared.

Poor communication in the past might mean your audience resists what you have to say today. Do your homework. Start familiarizing yourself with the context around an issue, and any alternative viewpoints and perspectives about it, before you initiate communication. If you’re met with resistance or presented with a different position, you’ll feel more prepared to address and overcome objections and communicate more effectively. 

6. Know your audience. 

Different stakeholders may have different concerns. The tactics you use to influence one group might not be the best approach for the next. Tailor your influencing strategy for the particular person and consider their personality, goals, and objectives, as well as their roles and responsibilities. For example, someone who is highly rational may be more easily swayed by a logical appeal than an emotional one.

7. Reinforce intent with body language.

Showing positive body language like eye contact, nodding, and other relaxed gestures can inspire team members and make them feel more comfortable communicating with you. A simple head nod or smile can go a long way to show you’re paying attention and that you care, and little gestures like this can add up, slowly helping you to build rapport and collaboration and transform your organizational culture, too.

8. Read the room.

Watch your audience closely for nonverbal signs of engagement or disengagement, confusion or understanding, etc. and adjust your message and style accordingly. You can do this literally during in-person meetings, and you can even “read the room” in virtual settings by looking closely at others’ faces on the screen and by soliciting feedback. If people are understanding your communication and aligned with your message, you may get lots of eye contact, see nodding heads, observe audience members leaning forward or demonstrating other body language that suggests alignment with your message. If you see listeners leaning back, with arms crossed, and bored or confused expressions on their faces, then you may need to adjust your message or delivery style. It’s helpful to pause occasionally to let people ask questions and check for understanding, giving your listeners a chance to respond or seek clarification, etc. Stay flexible so you can continually notice how your communications are landing with your audience, and adjust based on the signals they send. 

9. Ask good questions.

If good leaders listen more than they speak, the right conversation prompts are crucial. The best leadership questions get right to the heart of things, cut through complicated situations, and identify levers that will really make a difference. Asking non-directive inquiries can also unlock insights which is why asking powerful questions is key to coach your people.

10. Listen and encourage input. 

Seek out, and then listen to individuals from all levels of the organization — from the key stakeholders who have a lot of opinions you need to consider, to the new employees who may be reluctant to voice concerns. Let team members know they are valuable, show empathy toward them, and create psychological safety so people feel comfortable speaking up. It will show those you lead that you care about both them and the organization. 

Also, be okay with silence. Encourage the other person to offer ideas and solutions before you give yours. Do 80% of the listening and 20% of the talking. Demonstrate an interest in, and respect for, your colleagues — this builds trust and makes the emotional connection that’s so important for effective leadership. 

11. Take feedback seriously. 

Asking for honest feedback from your team or employees can foster a positive stream of communication, and it helps build trust overall. This tactic can also make your team feel more respected, giving them a chance to have their voices heard. If you take their feedback seriously, you will grow as a leader and enhance your skillset. However, if you ask for and then don’t incorporate their feedback, the opposite is true — it could lead to a loss of trust and alignment. Following through with action steps will reinforce the message and show that you truly heard and understood the other person’s concerns. 

12. Affirm with actions.

While effective leaders master the art and craft of language, speak clearly, and present logical and compelling arguments, skilled leaders also know that communication goes beyond words. If people hear one things from you but see another, your credibility is shot. People need to trust you. Your behavior and actions communicate a world of information — so focus on alignment and be clear on the messages you send even when you aren’t saying anything. 

13. Initiate the tough, but needed, conversations. 

Difficult conversations, whether with a client or direct report, are an inevitable part of any workplace. It’s tempting to ignore conflicts, but effective leaders must be able to address concerns as they arise. Be sure to approach any difficult conversation from a neutral perspective and explore both sides before coming to a conclusion. Work to problem-solve by inventing options that meet each side’s important concerns and do your best to resolve conflicts through open communication. 

14. Involve others before developing a plan of action. 

The work doesn’t stop when the communication ends. take whatever you’ve learned in the exchange, synthesize it, and present your plan to the appropriate stakeholders. Generating buy-in and making sure that everyone is on the same page before executing on strategy will be key to achieving organizational goals. 

15. Remember your reputation. 

Never compromise your reputation for the sake of communication. At times, you may walk a fine line between being too aggressive and being too relaxed, and as a leader, you need to make sure you don’t get a reputation for leaning too heavily in one direction. 

To navigate these challenges and bolster your leadership image, consider asking yourself thought-provoking questions like “When do I stay out of an issues and when do I get involved?” or “How do I respond when errors are identified?” Make a list of communication concerns you have, and ask a colleague to describe the behaviors they would consider too aggressive or too relaxed — their responses will help gauge how to move forward. 

Access Our Webinar!

Watch our webinar, How to Practice Authentic Communication in a Virtual Space, and learn actions to take — and avoid — in order to improve your listening and leadership communication skills in a virtual setting.

What Poor Leadership Communication Costs Your Organization 

Workplace communication is a moving target. Leaders must continue to find new ways to make their communications more effective, purposeful, and trustworthy. But, what if communication becomes stagnant, unorganized, and messy? 

Leaders may unintentionally derail their own efforts to enhance communication. They may not communicate enough because of a fear of oversharing, they may think out loud at the wrong moment, or they may have been too honest with a colleague. 

These challenges typically arise in high-stress situations, when expectations or deadlines aren’t met, when an opportunity is lost, or when innovation is lacking. It can be frustrating, but it’s worth putting in the extra effort to tackle these conflicts head-on with candid conversations and productive debate, because when a conflict is mismanaged, costs will continue to mount — whether they result in tangible out-of-pocket costs like turnover, or intangible costs like poor morale, decision-making, or broken trust.

Learn more about the true cost of poor leadership communication and the costs of “conflict incompetence.”

Improve Communication Among Leaders at Your Organization

Today’s leaders need the ability to communicate effectively and address complex challenges in new and innovative ways. Build the skills needed by partnering with us to craft a customized learning journey for your organization using our research-backed topic modules.

Available leadership topics include Leadership & Communication, Emotional Intelligence & Empathy, Influencing Skills, Leading Through Change, Listening to Understand, Psychological Safety & Trust, and more.

How Effective Leadership Communication Builds Trust: A Quick Self-Assessment for Leaders

A strong foundation of trust is one of the quickest ways leaders can establish good communication. Here are some actions that you can take while communicating to build trust. As you’re reading them, rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 — with a 1 signifying  it’s an area that you need to work on, and 5 meaning that you have excelled:

  • Ensure that your words and actions are consistent and avoid mixed messages.
  • Act in ways that support the values of your organization.
  • When having difficulty with another coworker or team member, go directly to that individual to discuss the situation.
  • Be a sounding board on sensitive issues for others.
  • Share your own opinions and perspectives, even when they’re different from the majority view.
  • Avoid being a “yes” person.
  • Keep your focus on the big picture and the shared goals of the organization.
  • Accept accountability for your own actions and the results of those actions.
  • Promote respectful dialogue and productive debate, and work to resolve conflicts productively.

Now that you’ve assessed your skills, how high is your score? How well did you do? If you identified any areas that need improvement, begin today by marking the one that you will start with immediately to start building trust and improving your communication as a leader.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Effective communication for leaders is essential. Partner with us to craft a customized learning journey for your team using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Authenticity, Communication & Leadership, Feedback That Works, Emotional Intelligence, Influence, Listening to Understand, Psychological Safety, and more.

Or, build coaching skills across your team and scale a culture of open communication and feedback across your entire organization.

November 24, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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