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Leadership communication matters—here’s how to nail it

Leadership communication: looking through the lens of research

Why do employees quit? Is it because their tasks and responsibilities don’t live up to their expectations? Or because they’re surrounded by gossipy or unsupportive coworkers? Or is it because the coffee in the break room is really that bad?

Sure, all of those things play a part in why employees decide to hit the road (cough, especially the bitter coffee).

But here’s the main reason why good employees leave: to get away from their managers.

Not convinced? Take a look at these critical leadership statistics:

  • 57% of employees have quit because of their boss (1)
  • 91% of employees say poor communication can hurt their relationship with their boss. (2)
  • 86% of employees and executives deem lack of collaboration or ineffective communication as the reason for workplace failures. (3)
  • Managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores. (4)
  • Three in four employees see effective communication as the number one leadership attribute. (5)
  • Only one in three employees feel their leaders communicate efficiently. (6)
  • Half of employees don’t know what’s expected of them at work (7)
  • 57% of employees said a lack of clear directions is a problem for them (8)
  • 40% of workers say they’d put more energy into their work if they were recognized more often (9)
  • 63% of employees feel like they don’t get enough praise on the job. (10)
  • 96% of employees say that receiving feedback regularly is a good thing. (11)
  • 31% of employees wish their manager communicated with them more frequently (12)
  • 23% of employees think it’s a problem that their managers don’t ask about their lives outside of work. (13)
  • 34% of workers think their companies don’t listen to their ideas to improve the business (14)
  • Only 42% of employees say they trust their boss (15)

Yikes. That’s right—a staggering 57% of employees have quit because of their boss. 

There’s a lot that goes into being a successful manager, but your leadership communication is a huge piece of the puzzle. 91% of employees say poor communication can hurt their relationship with their boss.

If effective communication was easy, everybody would knock it out of the park. Needless to say, it can be challenging at best. Let’s dig into why leadership communication matters and how you can do it right. 

Why is leadership communication important?

The proof is in the pudding, and there’s no better way to emphasize the importance of leadership communication than with cold, hard facts. Here are some compelling statistics that highlight why successful communication and reliable leadership is non-negotiable: 

  • A study by Fierce revealed that 86% of employees and executives deem lack of collaboration or ineffective communication as the reason for workplace failures.

  • Research from Gallup shows that managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores.

  • Three in four employees see effective communication as the number one leadership attribute. 

This means that when leaders communicate effectively, they can reap the following benefits: 

  • Better results and performance
  • Increased productivity and output
  • Improved alignment around goals and responsibilities 
  • Higher employee motivation and engagement
  • More positive and supportive team culture
  • Trusting and beneficial relationships with direct reports

Sound too good to be true? We promise it’s not. 

10 tips to improve your leadership communication

The benefits of leadership communication are obvious, yet only one in three employees feel their leaders communicate efficiently. 

You don’t want to be part of that statistic, which is why we’ve pulled together these 10 important strategies for improving your communication as a leader. 

1. Ensure transparency by over-communicating.

Relevant F4S motivation: Shared responsibility 

As a manager, you’re privy to a lot of company data and high-level conversations that employees don’t have access to. Unfortunately, it’s way too easy to forget that your direct reports don’t share your same visibility.

As their leader, it’s your responsibility to equip them with the transparency they need—especially when it comes to broader business objectives. Research from Gartner found that only 47% of employees reported understanding the business goals of their organization, which is proof that managers aren’t doing a great job of connecting the dots.

How do you improve transparency? You can start by:

  • Providing a quick recap of what was discussed in leadership meetings (without revealing sensitive information or details that should remain confidential)

  • Connecting your team’s projects and individual tasks to the bigger picture by explaining how those feed larger company undertakings

  • Setting specific and measurable goals for your own team, and highlighting how those connect to higher-level business objectives

Those are just a few ideas, and there are plenty more possibilities. The point is to remember that things that are common knowledge to you aren’t obvious to your team members. You need to over-communicate to ensure important information isn’t missed. 

2. Make expectations clear. 

Relevant F4S motivation: Depth 

Think your team members know exactly what they should be doing day in and day out? Think again. Gallup states that half of employees don’t know what’s expected of them at work. In a separate poll conducted by Harris and Interact, 57% of employees said a lack of clear directions is a problem for them. 

While you want to avoid micromanaging, it’s obvious that there’s room for more clarity between supervisors and their employees. 

The best way to do this is by setting goals for your employees. This gives them crystal clear targets to work toward. For best results, use the SMART goal framework where the goals you set are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Additionally, when you wrap up meetings—whether it’s your weekly team conversation or a one-on-one with an employee—talk through action items, who’s responsible for them, and when they need to be completed. That will ensure that everybody walks away from that sitdown on the same page. 

3. Provide adequate praise and recognition. 

Relevant F4S motivation: People

Want employees who are more committed to your organization and are eager to do their best work? Well, you need to make them feel valued. 

40% of employees say they’d put more energy into their work if they were recognized more often, yet 63% of employees feel like they don’t get enough praise on the job. 

Constructive feedback is important (and we’ll talk about that next), but you can’t get so focused on helping employees improve that you neglect to applaud them for the things they’re already doing well. 

Make praise and recognition a core part of your team culture by:

  • Dedicating a few minutes of your one-on-ones to positive feedback
  • Reserving time at the beginning or end of your team meetings for snaps and shoutouts
  • Celebrating when your team wraps up a big project and calling out specific contributions

4. Don’t skip constructive criticism.

Relevant F4S motivation: Evolution 

When you know that praise is so important to your direct reports, it’s tempting to think that they only want pats on the back and glowing reviews. But, that’s not true. Your employees crave constructive criticism too. 

96% of employees say that receiving feedback regularly is a good thing. So, while delivering these types of remarks can inspire some sweaty palms, it’s worth doing. 

How do you do it well? Feedback intended to help your direct reports improve is usually best done one-on-one (instead of in a group). Being corrected or directed in front of everybody can be somewhat overwhelming or even embarrassing. 

Additionally, be specific with your feedback by offering examples. The more targeted and well-supported your comments are, the more helpful they’ll be. Avoid group language and instead deliver constructive criticism using singular pronouns. For example:

“I’ve noticed that you don’t speak up in team meetings.”

...instead of:

“Everybody notices that you don’t speak up in team meetings.”

That seemingly small change will avoid making your employee feel ganged up on. 

5. Keep feedback conversations future-focused. 

Relevant F4S motivation: Future

Let’s talk a little more about delivering feedback, because it’s an important element of leadership communication. Plus, when only 26% of employees strongly agree that the feedback they receive helps them do better work, it’s crucial to be mindful of how you’re delivering criticism. 

Gallup advises that feedback conversations should be future-focused, and managers should aim to answer questions like:

  • What can we do to improve our chances of success next time?
  • What would it look like to exceed our expectations?
  • How can we prepare for the future? 

That’s far better than doling out observations or reprimands about past interactions and performance. “They paint a vision for the future—a portrait of success—and establish ongoing dialogue with employees that helps them comfortably discuss issues they encounter along the way,” Ben Wigert and Nate Dvorak explain in that same Gallup post

6. Communicate frequently. 

Relevant F4S motivation: Affiliation 

Effective communication isn’t something that you should prioritize or do when you think about it. It needs to be constant on your team, especially when 31% of employees wish their manager communicated with them more frequently. 

How can you ensure you’re keeping the lines of communication open with your team? A few ideas include:

  • Hosting a weekly team meeting for team-wide announcements and updates
  • Scheduling regular (at least monthly) one-on-ones with each of your direct reports to discuss goals, progress, and challenges
  • Implementing office hours where employees know you’re free for impromptu or less pressing questions and conversations

All of those opportunities for work discussions are important, but they shouldn’t make up the entirety of your communication with employees. 

23% of employees say that they think it’s a problem that their managers don’t ask about their lives outside of work. So, make sure that you incorporate some more personal small talk every now and then, as well as provide plenty of opportunities for your team to forge social connections with each other. 

7. Regularly solicit feedback.

Relevant F4S motivation: External reference

Being a leader isn’t just about offering feedback—it’s about receiving it as well. Your employees likely have suggestions and ideas that they’re eager to share. 

But, when 34% of workers think their companies don’t listen to their ideas to improve the business, they probably aren’t going to be willing to bring that feedback to you if you don’t open the door. 

In your team meetings and your one-on-ones, dedicate some time to ask employees if they have any feedback they’d like to share. Whether it’s a note about the workload of the team or a direction they found confusing, that’s a time when you can get a lot of valuable insights that help you become a better leader. 

When your team members share feedback, remember you can’t just hear them—you need to listen to them. Demonstrate your active listening skills by: 

  • Maintaining eye contact
  • Focusing on what the speaker is saying
  • Nodding occasionally
  • Summarizing what was said
  • Asking clarifying questions 

8. Build your emotional intelligence. 

Relevant F4S motivation: Affective communication 

Have you heard about emotional intelligence (often known as EQ) and it’s importance in effective leadership? 

Emotional intelligence is your ability to recognize, understand, and manage your own emotions, as well as the emotions of other people. Believe it or not, it’s the strongest predictor of performance

As Harvard Business School explains, the four components of emotional intelligence include:

  1. Self-awareness: Your ability to recognize your own emotions.
  2. Self-management: Your ability to manage your own emotions.
  3. Social awareness: Your ability to recognize other people’s emotions.
  4. Relationship management: Your ability to interact effectively with others. 

By working on each of those elements, you’ll be able to pick up on other factors—like body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and context clues—that will directly impact your communication with your direct reports. 

9. Avoid making empty promises. 

Relevant F4S motivation: Goal orientation 

Here’s a frightening fact: Only 42% of employees say they trust their boss. Yet, trust is the foundation of positive, productive relationships in the workplace. If trust doesn’t exist, communicating successfully is an uphill battle. 

Fortunately, establishing and building trust is relatively straightforward: You need to follow through on your promises. Do what you said you were going to do. When you make that a habit, your employees will realize that you’re trustworthy and always act with integrity.

To avoid making promises you can’t keep, you also need to be willing to admit when you don’t have all of the answers. It’s always better to be honest with employees about uncertainty or challenges you’re facing, rather than sweeping them under the rug or pretending you know the best way forward. 

10. Don’t use a blanket communication strategy.

Relevant F4S motivation: Tolerance 

Communication is personal—not everybody on your team will communicate exactly the same way. As the leader, you need to be able to tailor your approach to each individual employee.

Not sure how to effectively communicate with your different team members? Well, ask them. It can be as simple as sending out a brief questionnaire to your team to ask them questions like:

  • How and when do you prefer to receive constructive feedback?
  • What type of praise and recognition is most meaningful to you?
  • Are there any words or phrases that cause you to immediately bristle up or check out?
  • Can you rank your preferences for emails, instant messages, and face-to-face conversations?

Leadership communication is a work in progress

If you implement the strategies we outlined above, you’re sure to take your leadership communication skills up a notch.

But keep in mind that, much like leadership in general, it’s a constant work in progress. You’ll make some mistakes, collect some valuable feedback, and find out more about what works for you and your team.

Commit to the process. You won’t become a flawless communicator or leader overnight (or—let’s face it—maybe ever), but taking steps to improve is well worth the time and energy. 

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