Seven Communication Behaviors of True Leaders

Jim Morgan's picture

“Communication is key,” blah, blah, blah. You probably believe that quotation. No doubt you’ve heard it a million times in a million settings. But do you truly enact it in your workplace?

I bet you don’t.

I’m sorry if that seems rude. It is, however, an evidence-based statement. Granted, that is mostly anecdotal evidence—personal observations subject to a range of human biases. As it is consistent across my extended time in dozens of workplaces, however, and with the pattern of complaints I hear from workers, and with the occasional survey on the subject, I’m sticking with my bet.

Add in that my communication skills class is rarely requested. I think that’s because everyone thinks they are good communicators already. Yet the psychology based rules I teach in the class have been violated daily by multiple people everywhere I have done work for two decades.

If you truly believe “Communication is key,” it’s time for a reality check. To be a true leader—meaning, someone others want to follow—you must communicate often and correctly with those followers. That means routinely demonstrating the seven behaviors below.

Reply to every direct contact from within the company within four working hours. Every time you drop your car off for service, they say, “We’ll call you.” And how do you feel when 4:30 rolls around and you still haven’t heard from them? That is how your employees and peers feel when they do not hear back from you. If you get a voicemail or an e-mail where you are the only person on the “To” line, or a specific action is requested from you, you must reply quickly. At least say, “Got it.” Otherwise, according to communications researchers, “communication” has not occurred, because that requires a two-way information flow. If you have to reply too often because someone is contacting you too much, then you need to…

Confront bad behavior, in person. It’s the Golden Rule, which appears in cultures around the world dating back 3,000 years. Unless you are very lucky (or just starting your career), you have had the terrible surprise of a bad performance appraisal comment or of a peer going over your head without warning. You have probably also known a co-worker about whom everyone said, “Why don’t they do something about him/her?” Each example is due to a manager not willing to confront bad behavior. Leadership requires courage. How you apply that courage matters, however. For example…

Never deliver bad news in writing. It is a lie that “90% of communication is nonverbal,” but the kernel of truth to that statement is that people depend on nonverbals like voice tone and facial expressions to interpret your emotions. Without that context, they assume the worst, which turns an uncomfortable message into a threatening one. When you deliver bad news, morale and ethics demand you make it as nonthreatening as possible, meaning in person if at all possible, and by phone if not. You must also monitor your own nonverbals to keep them as soft as possible and…

Criticize rarely and in private. One of the great weapons of a parent is the public remonstrance of the child. Embarrassment adds power because it hurts. Psychologically the dynamics of the manager-employee relationship are largely the same as those of the parent-child relationship. Adults deserve to be treated like adults. Furthermore, studies on workplace motivation prove that you harm your team’s performance when members operate out of fear instead of loyalty to a caring boss. You get more of the latter when you…

Praise often, privately and publicly. Surely by now you have seen the multitude of surveys showing that appreciation is a strong motivator highly linked to employee satisfaction and engagement, even stronger than money. I don’t care if you don’t need praise personally, or if you think what you pay people should be motivation enough. Praise till it hurts, or you will never get as much productivity and worker loyalty as you could. You’ll have more to praise and less to criticize if you…

State your expectations as measurable behaviors. Imagine your boss says you have a “bad attitude” or you “aren’t aligned with the group.” How will you fix that? Don’t know? Of course you don’t. You have no clue what you did to give the boss that impression. You want specifics, examples, a list of your habits he or she wants changed. You also want to know how to measure your progress. If you “push back too often,” exactly how much is “too” often? If you only push back on others ideas once a week, is that acceptable? Don’t do to your employees and peers what that hypothetical boss is doing to you. This will be less likely if you…

Ask about people as people. The idea of a hard line between worklife and homelife is dumb. For most of human history, we lived and worked with the same group of people. Psychology tells us every human having a bad time in one sphere is going to be impacted in the other, whether or not they show it. If you think you are better than that, find someone who isn’t intimidated by you to tell you the truth (meaning, no one who feels a need to maintain a future with you). When the behavior of an employee or team member changes, even in a good way, ask why, and listen without interrupting. This will go quicker if you already know the basics of their personal lives. You don’t have to ask deep, dark questions. Just ask what they do for fun away from the office and some follow up questions to show you recognize they have feelings.

Don’t care to do all this? Don’t try to be a leader. Find an individual contributor position you like and stick with it. As a leader, your primary daily task is communicating with people. They won’t willingly follow you if you don’t use the seven behaviors above to enact that well-worn cliché, “Communication is key.”

Action Item: Copy these seven behaviors into a document by themselves and print it out. Keep a tally of every time you model each behavior for a month. Then set a goal to increase the counts over the following month, and track them to see how you do.


Anne Claire Broughton's picture

Well said, Jim! I appreciate your excellent insights and clear direction on how to implement them.

Jim Morgan's picture

You're very kind to say so, Anne Claire. It's nice to see your name pop up again.