Can a Leader Over Communicate?

A few weeks back the local newspaper in Minneapolis published a story on the best companies to work for in Minnesota. There were big companies, medium size and very small companies listed. 

 

They were from a variety of industries with many of the companies having a very diverse workforce, even the smaller ones. Some had leaders who had been at the helm a long time while others had newer leadership. There were many differences in the various organizations. 

 

But there was one thing that all, that’s all, as in every, organization seemed to have in common. When employees of organizations on the list were interviewed they all spoke of the importance of communication. 

 

A good work environment is dependent upon many factors. None are more important than open, consistent, and honest communication. 

 

“Work” is a vital part of most people’s lives. They spend, or hopefully, invest, a large percentage of their waking hours there. People have this space within them that holds the information they deem vital for their lives. Since work is vital they must have as much information as possible about where they work. They need to know how the organization is doing, if it’s stable, if it’s growing and what the future holds. If that information isn’t supplied for them then they fill the gap themselves, often with rumor.

 

Information is the enemy of rumor. If you don’t like rumors running around your organization then the fastest way to smother them is with accurate information.

 

I’ve known many people in leadership positions who believed and still believe that information is power. They believe that knowing something that their people don’t makes them more important. Some believe it makes them smarter and more indispensable. Others believe that “secrets” must be kept because it’s “best” to keep employees guessing. I knew a senior leader years ago who literally told me a key part of his job was to keep his people guessing about what he wanted from them. That’s crazy!

 

There is little information that must be kept secret. Yes, there are some legalities involved, especially for publicly held companies. But overall there is a lot more information withheld from an organization’s people than needs to be. 

 

Leaders should never withhold information from their people only for the sake of withholding it. Most leaders are very good about not being careless with information that must be protected. Most leaders are also very very careless about sharing information that their people need to know. They mindlessly forget how important the organization is to their people. Sometimes they simply lack the empathy needed to understand the importance of communication.

 

There have never been more avenues of communication available for leaders of organizations than there are today. Depending on the size of your organization you can email a brief weekly newsletter to your team or post a weekly blog on your company intranet. You can develop your own social media site for your organization. You can create a podcast for senior leaders to update people on what’s happening with the business. 

 

The key is consistent, regular and frequent, very frequent, communication. The younger your employees the more they crave that communication. Once a year or even once a quarter does not get it done anymore. 

 

There is no excuse for not communicating with your people. Unless of course you’re simply too busy. If that’s the case and you’re too busy to connect with your people then you need to realize that your also too busy to lead.


The answer to the question that makes up the title of this post NO, a leader cannot, absolutely cannot, over communicate.

The Truth of the Matter

One of the best pieces of dialogue from a movie is the famous part of “A Few Good Men” with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. It’s the line where Nicholson says “You want the Truth.” 

Except he never said that. 

He never said “YOU want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

The real truth is many people have been quoting “A Few Good Men” wrong for years. Jack Nicholson actually says “You want answers?” Then Tom Cruise says “I think I’m entitled to them!” Nicholson asks again “You want answers?” To which Cruise replies “I want the truth!”

It is only then that Nicholson serves up the famous line “You can’t handle the truth!”

We don’t even know the truth around perhaps the most famous movie line about truth ever.

Leaders struggle with the truth too. They don’t, at least most don’t, struggle with telling the truth, they struggle with being told the truth. Most leaders don’t know they struggle with this because they naively believe their people trust them enough to always be truthful. 

However, given the nature of power and authority, it is actually common for people to limit the information they provide to their leaders. They might think that they are protecting themselves or a colleague from the leaders wrath…or worse. They might even think they are in some way protecting their leader but in either case it is unlikely that the leader is always getting a clear picture of what’s going on in their organization.

Many leaders may not like this, they may not want to hear it or believe it but the truth of the matter is, very often the information they receive from their people is at least “filtered” to some degree. It may even be an outright lie.

If you’re a leader who truly wants the truth from your people, consistently and bias free, then you will need to help them deliver it to you. Help them by actively seeking this kind of communication without punishing them, in any way, for the content.  

Always ask for differing opinions, encourage people to provide you the real story, ask them to trust you enough to share the truth. (Yes, one of the major reasons your people don’t tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth is that they don’t trust you’ll handle it well)

When I say don’t “punish” them for the content I mean don’t punish them in any way. DO NOT get defensive. DO NOT raise your voice. DO NOT tell them they are wrong. In fact, DO NOT react in any way that would give anyone the impression that you are the least bit unhappy about what you just heard. DO NOT react in any way that would give anyone any reason to believe that they could be in “trouble” for telling you the truth or having an opinion that may differ from yours.

Just say “thank you for the courage to share that with me. Let me think on that for a bit and when I have my head around it we can talk again.” 

If you want the truth then you had better be prepared to handle it. Your facial expressions, your tone of voice, and your words really do matter. 

You know that you perform better when you have better, more truthful information. You also need to know that you won’t get it if your people think it’s too “dangerous” to give it to you. If you want the truth you’re going to have to work for it. That “work” likely includes changing some of your  behavior to help your people feel more comfortable when providing the information you need to truly lead.

And that’s the truth of the matter.

 

The Look of Leadership

They say you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. The same could be said of a leader.

Many leaders, maybe even most, look and act like a leader. (Or at least they look and act the way a majority of people think a leader should look and act) They carry themselves a certain way, speak with conviction and they are good communicators who can effectively present to large groups. 

Many leaders, maybe even most, look and act like a leader…. but not all!

I hear way too often that “they don’t look like a leader” or “they don’t speak well in front of groups” or “they are too quiet” or they don’t dress “right” to lead. 

That is way too simplistic. 

It is beyond foolish to judge someone’s leadership ability by how they look or sound. Leadership is about influence pure and simple. If someone can influence others then they can lead others. Leaders come in all shape and sizes, they come in all ages and they come from all backgrounds. 

The only way to actually judge a person’s leadership ability is to look at the people they lead. Simply put, the most successful leaders have the most successful followers. The most successful leaders are the ones who create more successful leaders. 

While a good speaker may influence someone for a time a good leader can influence someone for a lifetime. I’d much rather follow a true leader who leads without looking like a leader than follow a person who merely looks like a leader. 

The reality is there is no “leadership look,” there are only leadership actions. 

Impeccable integrity, consistently sound judgement, a truly caring heart, a desire to see others succeed, matching their words with their actions, excellent relationship skills, the ability to feed egos beyond their own, providing consistent recognition and feedback are just some of the skills, attitudes and actions that help someone lead. 

Look for those things and when you see them, then you’ll be seeing “the look” of a leader!

Why 360 Reviews Seldom Work

imageFor those of you unfamiliar with the term “360 Review” let me explain. A 360 review is a tool that companies use to evaluate their employees at various levels of the organization. A mid-level manager for instance will be provided feedback from their own direct reports, from colleagues at a similar level within the organization and from their direct supervisor. They may or may not receive feedback from others higher within the organization as well.

The idea is to get a well rounded “picture” of the person from different levels of the organization. A person who interacts well with people above them in an organization may be a horrible boss to those below them. That’s why a review from just one part of an organization provides an incomplete view. You need feedback from all around an organization, hence the term “360.”

Once this complete picture is developed the individual being reviewed should have a good idea of their strengths and weaknesses, other people’s perception of them, and a good understanding of where their developmental opportunities are.

The key words in that previous sentence are “should have.” The concept of 360 reviews is great, the execution seldom is. In fact, the execution of these types of reviews is almost always lacking. They nearly always fail to accomplish the intended objective. 

They fail for two primary reasons. First, many people will not provide honest, open, and sincere feedback. While nearly every company claims that the feedback is anonymous it too often isn’t. Either the person being reviewed figures out where the feedback came from by what was written or the review is so bad that the Human Relations Department gets involved and inadvertently “exposes” the reviewers. 

When word gets around that one person’s feedback wasn’t in fact anonymous then it is assumed that nobody’s feedback is anonymous. From that point forward all 360 feedback is tainted… and far less valuable. 

In a very unscientific survey I asked about 30 people from a dozen or so companies if they believed the 360 review process was truly anonymous in their organization. The answers ranged from “they hope so” to “absolutely not.” Not one could say with certainty that their name wouldn’t eventually be attached to the feedback they provided. Not one said they would provide completely open and honest feedback either.

The other primary reason 360 reviews fail is that way too often the person being reviewed has no real interest in getting better. They claim to want to get better and are even willing to get better so long as they don’t actually have to change any of their behaviors. Unfortunately getting better means something must change and if it is you who needs to get better then you MUST accept some change in your life.

Thankfully there are some people who really do want to improve themselves and they will use what they can from the feedback to actually try to improve. But in an environment where the quality of the feedback is suspect even they will take it with a rather large grain of salt.

All change is hard but personal change is the hardest of all. When the change is driven by perceived negative feedback it can be nearly impossible to change. That’s why feedback from a 360 review so seldom leads to real change; the person being reviewed too often perceives even well-intended comments on improvement opportunities to be negative feedback. 

There are certainly other issues with the 360 review process but those are the big ones. Once broken the 360 review process can be nearly impossible to fix.

Just so we’re clear, I am most certainly NOT an HR professional. I can’t say with certainty that there are better developmental tools available than the 360 review. I just know that without a doubt that there needs to be. 

What Your People Need to Know

I’ve been pretty fortunate throughout my career; I’ve never been fired from a job and I’ve had to fire very few people. I don’t like firing people, it is not only a very unpleasant experience it is a failure of my leadership as well.

As bad as firing someone is, being fired is far worse, research says it is one of the most disruptive and stressful events that can happen during a person’s lifetime.

So firing somebody is a VERY big deal. It should only be done as a last resort; considered only after every attempt has been made to help the person become a valuable member of the organization.

If you’ve hired someone who you later are forced to fire there are really only two possibilities; you either hired the wrong person for the job or you failed to provide them with the tools they needed to perform.

I know there are leaders out there who are freaking out at that last paragraph and to you I say this: Step up and accept responsibility for your decisions. It’s okay to screw up, it happens, it shows you’re human. Not accepting your role in the failure of one of your people diminishes your credibility as a leader.

As bad as having to fire someone is here’s what’s worse: firing someone who had no idea it was coming.

That is about as huge a leadership failure as you can find and sadly, it is very common.

As terrible and as stressful as being fired is no one should be surprised when they hear the words, “you’re fired.”

Your people need to know, clearly know, what is expected of them. Research done across a variety of industries and professions indicted that fewer than 35% of employees say they do. If my math is correct that means that over 65% of employees do NOT have a clear understanding of what is expected of them.

Your people also need to know, with as much precision as possible, how their results will be measured. Leaders who leave “gray areas” when measuring results create stress and lower productivity in their workplace.

If you think you’re “covered” because you conduct annual reviews with your people you’re just kidding yourself. Or, you’re like me, and a lot of others, in that you just don’t like those “performance” conversations. Well tough, you accepted your leadership role so start leading.

Effective leadership requires consistent, somewhat frequent “updates” that are two-way conversations where ideas are exchanged and expectations are discussed and managed.

Most people will either try to meet or exceed your expectations of them. If they are not meeting your expectations then you need to carefully consider whether you have clearly communicated those expectations to them… recently. When your people clearly know what you need from them and they see you as a leader they WILL find a way to deliver.

Your success depends on the success of your people, make sure you give them the chance at success that they deserve.

The Approachable Leader

If you’re a very high level leader in a mid to large size organization you live a good part of your life in a bubble. The higher in your organization you are the bigger, and stronger, the bubble.

You may disagree with that but that’s because you live in a bubble, apparently the bubble can’t be seen from the inside but it is pretty obvious to anyone looking at it from the outside.

The bubble causes lots of issues for leaders. Generally speaking the bubble makes it more challenging to be an effective leader. That’s because not only can you not see the bubble, you can’t see the haze the bubble puts around everything you do see. The bubble also muffles the voices of a good many people you talk with.

Now, it’s not anything that a leader does that causes the bubble. A bit of the bubble is caused by people’s almost natural fear of being themselves around what I’ll call an “authority figure.” When you’re the boss you have a measure of control over a big part of your people’s lives and that tends to make a lot of them a bit skittish.

The biggest cause of the bubble however is what leaders don’t do. They don’t take concrete steps to escape the bubble or better yet, simply destroy the bubble entirely. They do not make themselves an approachable leader.

So, how does a leader get outside the bubble or eliminate it completely?

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Transparent, consistent, honest, open, frequent, wide-ranging, real, two-way communication. Communication is a great way to bring downs walls and burst bubbles. There are many ways to effectively communicate these days, even if your team is very large.

Nothing will ever replace face-to face conversations. No matter what anybody says, nothing will replace the personal touch. So as I suggest a couple of alternatives to live, personal interactions please understand that I’m not suggesting you use these instead of personal communication, I’m suggesting to use these along with your frequent human interactions.

Write a company or organization blog. Don’t have it written, write it yourself. Seriously, a blog post saying hey, here’s what happening lately should take less than 30 minutes to write. Once or twice a month is enough and a reply or two can be done on the fly.

Obviously you can’t share proprietary information or make anyone an inside trader but you can stay more visible. The reality today is that people read blogs, your people will most certainly read yours. You can share your weekend plans, tell a story about your family, discuss a topic in the news. You may wonder why your people would care but know this: they do. You had better hope they do because if they don’t care about you as a person they can’t care about you as a leader. Let them know you’re human, just like them.

Do a weekly Podcast. A two or three minute podcast with current information and a shot of motivation delivered straight to your team’s email each Monday morning. Again, it’s purely conversational, personal and connecting. A two or three minute podcast shouldn’t take much longer to record than, well than, two or three minutes.

Both of these ideas require time. The question is does interacting with your people seem like an expense of your time or an investment of your time? As a leader, remaining close to the people who make-up your organization is priceless. It costs so little yet means so much.

This is an investment that will pay returns almost immediately, and unlike most investments this one is almost a sure thing. Why wouldn’t a leader make this investment today?