Key leadership communication skills and how to improve them

4 colleagues huddles together displaying leadership communication skills

Why do employees quit? Is it because tasks and responsibilities don’t live up to their expectations? 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 those things may play a part in an employee’s decision to hit the road (cough, especially the bitter coffee).

But the main reason why good employees leave? To get away from their managers. Research shows that 57% of employees have quit because of their boss.1  

There’s a lot that goes into being a successful manager, but leadership communication is a huge piece of the puzzle. In fact 91% of employees say poor communication hurts their relationship with their boss.2

If effective communication was easy, everybody would knock it out of the park. Needless to say, it’s not. But don’t worry, we're going to walk you through the steps necessary to build the skills to communicate with your team in the way that works best for them.

Table of contents
What are effective communication skills in leadership?
Why are leadership communication skills important?
How to improve leadership communication skills: 10 tips every manager should learn
Leadership communication skills examples

What are effective communication skills in leadership?

Leadership communication skills include:

  • Transparency
  • Making expectations clear
  • Praise and recognition
  • Providing honest feedback
  • Team building
  • Consistency
  • Listening
  • Emotional intelligence (EQ)
  • Building trust

Why are leadership communication skills important?

The benefits of effective leadership communication skills include:

Better results and performance.

Being able to understand others and get your point across greatly improves employee performance. A study by Fierce revealed that 86% of employees and executives think workplace failures happen because of ineffective communication or a lack of collaboration.3

Increased productivity and output

In one study, being a better manager led to a 23% productivity boost!4

Higher employee motivation and engagement

Research from Gallup shows that at least 70% of the difference in employee engagement scores can be attributed to managers.5

More positive and supportive team culture

Leaders affect organizational culture and how direct reports feel about that culture. In fact, 60% of hybrid knowledge workers say their managers have among the highest influence on how connected they feel to the company's culture.6

Trusting and beneficial relationships with direct reports

Around 3 in 4 employees see effective communication as the number one leadership attribute.7 That's why it's crucial to be a good listener, practice empathy and communicate clearly to build strong relationships at work.

How to improve leadership communication skills: 10 tips every manager should learn

manager is communicating with body language and communication showing leadership

The benefits of leadership communication are obvious, yet only 1 in 3 employees feel their leaders communicate effectively.7

You don’t want to be part of that statistic. That is why we’ve pulled together these 10 important strategies for improving your communication as a leader and building stronger relationships with your direct reports.

1. Ensure transparency by over-communicating.

As a manager, you may be privy to company data and high-level conversations that employees don’t have access to. It’s easy to forget that your direct reports don’t share your visibility.

As their leader, it’s your responsibility to offer them the transparency they need to do their jobs, especially when it comes to broader business objectives. Research from Gartner found that only 47% of employees understand the business goals of their organization, which is proof that managers aren’t doing a great job of connecting the dots.8

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).
  • Tapping into big-picture thinking by connecting your team’s projects and individual tasks to the broader vision by explaining how those feed larger company undertakings. If you struggle with getting bogged down in the details, try the Coach Marlee program Big Picture Thinker to get personalized guidance on honing this skill!
  • Setting specific and measurable goals for your team, and highlighting how those connect to higher-level business objectives

These are just a few ideas, and there are plenty more. The main thing to remember is that things that are common knowledge to you may not be obvious to your team members. You need to over-communicate to ensure important information isn’t missed.

2. Make expectations clear.

Think your team members know exactly what they should be doing day in and day out? Think again. Gallup found that half of employees don’t know what’s expected of them at work.9 In a separate poll conducted by Harris and Interact, 57% of employees said a lack of clear directions is a problem for them.10

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

Be a goal-oriented leader by setting clear objectives for your employees. This gives them targets to work toward. 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 ensures that everybody walks away from that sitdown on the same page.

3. Provide adequate praise and recognition.

an employee holding a star as recognition of praise which is one form of leadership communication

Want employees who are more committed to your organization and 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 often11 and 63% of employees feel like they don’t get enough praise on the job.12

The best leaders are people-oriented, meaning they're highly interested in other people's inner worlds, thoughts and feelings. 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. This helps them feel valued.

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.

When you know that praise is important to your direct reports, it’s tempting to think 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.12

How do you do it well? Feedback intended to help direct reports improve is best done one-on-one. Being corrected or directed in front of the team can be overwhelming and embarrassing.

You also need to hone your skill of learning from the past, which means you are motivated by analyzing past performances to see how you and your team can improve in the future. Team retrospectives are a great way to learn from the past and offer critical feedback that helps direct reports improve next time.

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.

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.13

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 dishing 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.13

5. Cultivate a strong team dynamic.

Being an effective communicator as a leader requires that you are able to facilitate communication and foster relationships between each member of your team. This cultivates team building. Learn each individual's work and communication styles so you can rally them around a common goal.

f4s team dashboard
F4S team dashboard

As a busy manager, you may not have time to sit down and figure out each person's work and communication style. Instead, send your team the free F4S assessment so that, within minutes, you'll have a detailed report of how they score across the 48 traits that affect their life and work.

What's more, you can open up the Teams dashboard and see the dynamics of your team and how you can leverage each person's strength for the greater benefit of the whole.

Accelerate understanding between teams

Breadth

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Motivated by macro big picture thinking, these teammates value moving quickly to connect dots between abstract ideas to 'get the gist' of things.

Chart showing rage from Average, High and Ver High.

vs

Depth

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These teammates value being concrete and specific, getting into details to understand the steps or tasks required.

Chart showing rage from Average, High and Ver High.

See the different work styles in your team

Take the free assessment & set up your team

6. Communicate frequently.

Effective communication isn’t something that you should prioritize or do when you think about it. It needs to be constant. Especially, seeing as 31% of employees wish their manager communicated with them more frequently.12

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 candid conversations.

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

23% of employees say they think it’s a problem that their managers don’t ask about their lives outside work.10 So, make sure you connect with staff on a personal level every now and then and provide opportunities for your team to forge social connections with each other.

Leaders who have strong professional relationships have a high motivation for belongingness, meaning that they are energized by bonding with people at work. This builds stronger rapport among team members.

7. Regularly solicit feedback.

Being in a leadership role 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,14 they probably aren’t going to be willing to bring that feedback to you if you don’t open the door.

To regularly solicit feedback, foster your motivation for external reference, which means placing priority on seeking outside sources for data, research and feedback when making decisions. This cultivates open-mindedness, growth and thoughtful decision-making.

In your team meetings and your one-on-ones, dedicate time to asking 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.

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

Psychologist Daniel Goleman defines emotional intelligence as "the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.”

Believe it or not, emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of performance.

By working on your EQ, you’ll be able to pick up on other factors, like tone of voice, hand gestures, and context clues, that will directly impact your communication with your direct reports.

Picking up on other people's emotions requires you to master affective communication, which is how closely you pay attention to tone of voice, gestures and other non-verbal communication.

9. Avoid making empty promises.

Here’s a frightening fact: Only 42% of employees say they trust their boss.15 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 and do what you said you would do. When you make that a habit, your employees will realize that you’re trustworthy and act with integrity.

To avoid making promises you can’t keep, you must be willing to admit when you don’t have all 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.

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 employee.

this manager is using personalized communication to talk to his colleague

To do this, you need to learn the specific communication style of each person. Some people are motivated toward neutral communication, meaning they focus solely on the words used, while others are affective communicators, meaning they pay attention to non-verbal hints, like gestures and tone of voice. Anyone can learn their communication style by taking the free F4S assessment.

Additionally, it's useful to ask your team members questions like:

  • How and when do you prefer to receive constructive feedback?
  • What type of praise and recognition are 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 skills examples

Still need some leadership communication skills examples to drive the point home?

Making expectations clear

Example: As a leader, you might decide to implement a weekly team standup, where you outline the goals for the week, clarify which success metrics you'll be tracking and assign tasks to specific team members. This will make expectations clear, reduce confusion and boost productivity among your staff.

Praise and recognition

Example: You might make it a point to communicate appreciation to employees on a daily basis through spot recognition. This means that you thank your team members "on the spot," when they do something worthy of praise. Something as simple as a "thank-you" in the moment can do wonders for helping your team feel valued.

Providing honest feedback

Example: An example of providing honest feedback is letting your direct reports know how they can improve during one-on-one meetings. This is the ideal place to do it, as you don't want to embarrass them in front of their teammates.

Giving constructive criticism is an art form. It requires a foundation of trust between you and your team members. Make sure to be specific and let them know exactly what you'd like to see in the future and how you can support them to achieve this.

Hone your leadership communication skills

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, without a deep understanding of each individual, your team will falter. Gain evidence-based insights into what motivates each employee and check the pulse of your team dynamics by taking the F4S assessment.

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1. DDI, 2019, New DDI Research: 57 Percent of Employees Quit Because of Their Boss, PR Newswire, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-ddi-research-57-percent-of-employees-quit-because-of-their-boss-300971506.html

2. Solomon L, 2015, The Top Complaints from Employees About Their Leaders, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2015/06/the-top-complaints-from-employees-about-their-leaders

3. Fierce Inc., 2011, 86 Percent of Employees Cite Lack of Collaboration for Workplace Failures, Fierce, Inc., https://fierceinc.com/employees-cite-lack-of-collaboration-for-workplace-failures/

4. Bloom N et al, 2012, 'Does Management Really Work?, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2012/11/does-management-really-work

5. Harter J and Adkins A, 2015, Employees Want a Lot More From Their Managers, Gallup, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236570/employees-lot-managers.aspx

6. Gartner, 2022, Gartner Says 60% of Hybrid Knowledge Workers Report Their Direct Manager is One of the Top Two Influences On Their Connection to Corporate Culture, Gartner, https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2022-10-25-gartner-says-60-percent-of-hybrid-knowledge-workers-report-their-direct-manager-is-one-of-the-top-two-influences-on-their-connection-to-corporate-culture

7. Jouany V and Martic K, 2023, 18 Leadership Communication Trends to Look For in 2023, Haiilo, https://blog.smarp.com/18-leadership-communication-trends-to-look-for-in-2020

8. Baker M, 2022, 3 Ways to Set Effective Performance Goals, Gartner, https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/3-ways-to-set-effective-performance-goals/

9. Nink M, 2015, Many Employees Don't Know What's Expected of Them at Work, Gallup, https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/186164/employees-don-know-expected-work.aspx

10. Lebowitz S, 2015, 9 things employees hate most about their bosses, Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/top-complaints-about-bosses-2015-10#-6

11. Novak D, 2016, Recognizing Employees Is the Simplest Way to Improve Morale, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2016/05/recognizing-employees-is-the-simplest-way-to-improve-morale?zd_source=hrt&zd_campaign=5503&zd_term=chiradeepbasumallick

12. Officevibe, 2021, Employee engagement statistics from across the globe, Officevibe, https://officevibe.com/state-employee-engagement

13. Wigert B and Dvorak N, 2019, Feedback Is Not Enough, Gallup,https://www.gallup.com/workplace/257582/feedback-not-enough.aspx

14. Jordan A, 2018, Most employees don’t feel their ideas are being heard, SmallBusiness.co.uk, https://smallbusiness.co.uk/employee-ideas-business-listening-2544393/

15. Twaronite K, 2016, A Global Survey on the Ambiguous State of Employee Trust, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2016/07/a-global-survey-on-the-ambiguous-state-of-employee-trust

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