Women in Business - February 2016
I was once coaching a corporate leader. He was a brilliant business strategist and on so many fronts he was a great success—revenues were up dramatically, new markets were on the horizon, the company’s reputation was at an all time high. However, if you asked employees, they would not describe him as a great leader. In fact, they did not really like him. Why? Employees did not feel a connection with him.
This leader made the mistake of believing that success in growing the business was enough to forge a connection. It may be enough for a mental connection, but not for a human connection that is based on really feeling one another. A human connection completely changes the relationship between the leader and employees in a way that creates magic, and it starts with how the leader communicates.
Although there are many styles of communicating, three in particular play out prominently in fostering or disrupting a connection. Each of these styles is defined by the primary intention of the communicator, which could be to:
> Convey Information Clearly: “Your report contains an error. We have to present the report to our clients at 5 p.m. today and this is what we need to do to fix it.”
> Build a Harmonious Relationship: “Your report is great. I noticed a small area we might want to tighten up a bit. What do you think?”
> Establish and Reinforce Stature: (i.e., who is in the more powerful position) “This report contains an error. I shouldn’t have to be the quality reviewer of your work. Please fix it so I can present the report to our clients this afternoon.”
Your intentions for communicating and what you look for in communications from others are typically the same. So, if I am focused on clarity, and you are focused on rapport, what we are seeking from each other will be different and miscommunication will probably result. You may be offended by my bluntness and misinterpret the delivery of my message. I may be frustrated with your ambiguity and misinterpret the content of your message.
The best formula for leaders to connect is a combination of the first two styles. Being clear and honest creates trust, and attending to the relationship creates a bond. Too often leaders feel that focusing clarity and relationship are contradictory objectives, particularly when there is bad news to share. In their view, one option is to put a positive spin on a message to avoid hurting, demotivating, or worrying employees. Another option is the “tough love” approach of laying out the hard facts in a message that feels cold and detached.
What employees long for is authenticity and coherence. They want to see the humanness in their leaders, which means a leader has to be willing to share personal stories and vulnerabilities. They also want to know their leader sees their humanness, which means the leader acknowledges and honors their needs. Many leaders are in their positions because they truly care about the business, they care about the people and they see the interdependence of the two. Their communications come from a place of good intentions and they just haven’t found the right balance. Other leaders only see the numbers, perhaps because they have never experienced what it is like to truly connect with others in a heartfelt way, so they don’t understand its power and magic. As you combine clarity and rapport, authenticity is hard to fake. If how you feel and the intention of your message are not aligned, it will ultimately leak through as incongruence. Here are two examples:
Disconnect: “I wish you and your families a restful holiday and a wonderful New Year . . . 2015 has been a good year, however, we have a challenging year ahead. Regrettably, to remain profitable, we will have to implement another round of reductions that will be announced in the following months.” [Extracted from real CEO letter to employees]
Connect: “During this past year, we have come together to successfully work through some incredible cost-cutting challenges. I wish I could say that next year will be different, but we all know that I can’t. As the Holidays approach, my wish for you all is to experience the joy and appreciation of connecting with your families, friends and each other. This bond that we have will fuel our determination to again collectively address the challenges that lie ahead.”
In the first example, the primary intention that comes through is reinforcing stature—the leader is calling the shots, and the wish for a wonderful New Year feels completely disingenuous. The result is resentment, distrust and disengagement.
In the second example, the leader is honest and compassionate. The holiday wish is heartfelt and presented in the right context. It is clear that employees will be involved in decisions affecting them, as they have been in the past. The result is connection, engagement and unleashed creativity.
As a leader, if you want to connect, be authentic and communicate in a heartfelt way. What you get back in return may amaze you.
Cindy Petitt is an executive coach and management consultant. She has conducted studies on factors that help and hinder the advancement of women to executive levels in male dominant corporate environments. She also conducts workshops for women on topics such as personal presence, communicating with influence, and leadership; and workshops for men and women on gender differences.