With monotonous regularity, employee engagement surveys tell us that leader communication remains the area of greatest dissatisfaction and an impediment to motivation and trust. So what is going wrong when we seem to be doing more than ever inside our organisations?
We’ve become good at providing new and exciting opportunities for leaders to use social media channels; we’re helping them write blogs; suggesting and facilitating more and greater interaction with followers. We’re also getting a bit better at pushing back, when working with senior management and being told to dream up a new strategic narrative, when it’s not clear what the business strategy actually is. So maybe the question is not ‘are we doing enough?’ but rather ‘are we doing too much?’
Academic and Practitioner research tell us that those leaders who are seen to be authentic and trustworthy communicate personally rather than just relying on professional communicators to do it for them. So, if we are relieving leaders of their communication responsibility then we could be unwittingly creating a problem. There is a danger employees just hear our interpretative voice rather than the ones that need to be heard. Then if leaders don’t appear to own what is being said, or in the worst case behave in stark contrast to their ‘formal’ words, the result – internal spin. And we know how people feel about that.
Getting the balance of intervention right isn’t easy, particularly when the leader is not a comfortable communicator. So, how do we build the kind of relationship that allows us to return the responsibility gently and ensure that leaders are able to deliver – without actually doing it for them? It’s clear that helping them to develop this communication capability calls for a different way of working. Communicators need to develop and apply a further skill – that of coaching – if we want leaders not only to accept responsibility for their communication but also be able to execute it well.
There are many valid reasons for using a coaching approach in contrast to our normal communication ‘expert’ role. According to leading Neuroscientist David Rock, status is a significant motivational factor for most people. When we offer a sensitive leader advice, no matter how well meant or valid, this can be seen as an attack on his or her position and generate a highly adverse reaction. In contrast, a coaching approach, characterised by questioning and listening, will ensure that the recipient comes up with their own ideas and suggestions. These, when refined by appropriate challenge and discussion, are much more likely to be adopted as well as being most authentic. Win – win. Also if we want our leaders to develop and use new skills regularly, coaching is the most powerful way for an adult to learn as it is delivered when it is most needed, in the right context, in the most appropriate way for that particular person.
However to be able to coach a leader carries certain requirements. There needs to be a good relationship, usually built from having delivered in the past; the context and opportunity need to be right and the communicator needs the skills and courage to do it effectively. The good new is all these elements can be managed and learnt. When communicators add coaching skills to their business partner toolkits, leadership communication has a real chance of improving in our organisations. Then, just maybe, we will start to see genuine motivational connections in our workplaces and the return of trust?