I was surfing through the channels a couple of weeks ago, and stumbled upon a TV show that had business school students ask Warren Buffett questions. One student asked the multi-billionaire, “What courses are MBA schools currently lacking in teaching their students?” Buffett said without hesitation, communication, both written and oral.
I agree with Buffett. The art or communication, through writing and speaking, is definitely a lost art form for many leaders. Employees are working in uncertainty and ambiguity; getting de-motivating news from newspapers, news channels, the Internet, and their own company’s e-mail; unwillingly accepting cuts to 401k or 403b, or salary, or even layoffs. Now more than ever, leaders need to be able to effectively communicate. Here are some points of thought for you.
Leaders need to communicate vision. Top leaders need to communicate their idea, their goal, their plan, their strategy for eventual success. Employees are tired of the continual e-mails and memos and phone messages of bad numbers, not meeting profit margins, expenses over revenue. It’s the perfect time for a switch to the positive. Get your vision out there. Communicate in simple, colorful, easy-to-understand terms. Communicate a metaphor. Get people excited about coming to work for you. Do this through speeches, podcasts, written memos, anything to get your vision out there.
Leaders need to verbally encourage and recognize. Some of my own research stems from Bob Eisenberger of the University of Delaware and Linda Shanock of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, among others – the more supervisors care for the development and well-being of their employees, the more those employees will reciprocate (return the favor), through dedication and hard work. My own research with Karl Kuhnert of the University of Georgia, Scott Mondore of Strategic Management Decisions, and Erin Page of Russell Reynolds, showed that a climate of such “supervisor support” was indicative of high retention rates of employees. In another study I did with Tracy Griggs of Winthrop University and Scott, those who felt they were supported by their supervisors had better job performance, and showed less signs of managerial derailment behaviors (those behaviors that lead to premature demotion, firing, or burnout). One easy way leaders can show such support for employees: take one minute out of your day, see one of your workers, ask him or her how he/she is doing, hear the person out, verbally encourage the person and recognize him/her for the hard work. The next day, take another minute, do the same thing for another worker. Each day, one minute, one worker. One minute each day. It will go a long way.
Leaders need to communicate authentically. Heed the words of Eric Clapton when communicating: “It’s in the way that you use it.” People see right through those who say things they don’t mean. Many more people will believe in what you say, if you say it genuinely. One of Karl’s favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein: “All means prove but blunt instruments, if they have not behind them a living spirit.”
Finally, the 90s hair band Extreme was right – it really is “More than words.” A full 93% of the emotional meaning behind your communication is nonverbal – your voice tone, your facial expressions, your gestures, your postures, space, touch, the way you dress, your use of time, all say things that can either back up or completely contradict the actual words that are coming out of your mouth. People heed more to the nonverbal cues and behaviors than the words. Use the nonverbals to accentuate, not annihilate, what you are trying to say.
When people are lost and uninspired, or to paraphrase Clapton, when they have seen dark skies never like this, walked on thin ice never like this, words can go a long way. Communicate your vision. Encourage and recognize. Be authentic – think like Clapton’s “It’s in the way that you use it.” Finally, remember, Extreme’s ballad, “More than words” – it’s not just the words, but more importantly, the actions behind those words.