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  • Writer's pictureMichael Meis

Leaders: Forget What You Learned About Communication

How many times have we heard it? “Great leaders are great communicators” I would wager that just in the past month, you have heard it more times than you can count. The problem is, too many organizational leaders think communicating involves only talking to their employees. To effectively lead people, you must not only communicate with them, but also provide the opportunity for them to communicate with you too.

I still remember the first time I asked for some feedback. I was an 18-year-old general manager for a small business that operated fast food establishments and coffee shops throughout the Kansas City area. I had been in the position for about a year, and recently finished a book on how to become a more effective leader. I started with the vaguest question I could think of:

“What do you think could be better?”

The response was an outpouring of suggestions, criticisms, compliments, and ideas from every level of the organization. I was blown away by the number of opinions and ideas. The feedback ranged from operational process improvements, scheduling issues, and development opportunities to compensation complaints, communication breakdowns, and issues with physical layouts. Keep in mind these were mostly people under 22 years old—many at their first job—in an organization that had very mature processes and relatively simple operational goals. Put simply, it was far from rocket science.

Now take a moment and think about your organization; think about your people; think about your processes.

You most likely lead people with years, even decades of experience. You probably lead people with a bevy of problem-solving skills and advanced educational accomplishments, operating in a complex environment filled with undefined processes and problems that do not have a “right answer.” I would bet my next paycheck that your people have an idea or two as well. What’s wrong with those ideas? Why aren’t they getting anywhere?

You didn’t ask for them.

I joined the military very early in my career and received a crash course (Thank you Drill Sergeant Harmon) in what I later learned was called Transactional Leadership Theory. To put the theory as simply as possible, there is a leader and there are subordinates. The leader knows best, and the subordinates’ only job is to follow the leader. It’s rigorously structured and hyper goal-oriented, using rewards for meeting goals and punishments for falling short. This leadership theory works well for the military and it works well for war. The Transactional Leadership Theory does not, however, work in most professional environments, and it certainly does not work with the modern workforce demographic. Even so, many leaders still subconsciously feel ever-mounting pressure to know everything, to be right, to have all the answers, and to micromanage their employees toward an end goal. We’ve all been under one of these leaders at some point, haven’t we? They have an unrelenting grip on authority, and never let you forget who’s in charge. They rarely take advice, especially from the people they manage. They carry their decisions, good and bad, to the grave. They are a BOSS in the most literal sense of the word.

The problem with the Transactional Leadership Theory—and leaders who utilize it—is its failure to recognize the humanity of both the leader and their staff. It doesn’t embrace the strength of thought diversity and differing perspectives. The theory also fails to account for team members desiring a say in their work structure. It ignores the basic human need to feel acknowledged and appreciated. It enforces a strict hierarchical structure, which places leaders on a metaphorical pedestal that is simply unattainable. Thankfully, as more of its shortcomings are recognized, the Transactional Leadership Theory has been largely abandoned by many prominent companies. Despite organizations moving away from this leadership style, many individual leaders still stubbornly cling to its core principles, namely those regarding communication. Look over the following list. Are you guilty of these ineffective leadership habits?

  • Using mass emails as a replacement for interpersonal communication.

  • Making process and policy changes without talking to the people they impact.

  • Writing blog posts without ever reading or responding to comments.

  • Marketing open-door policies that only symbolically exist to check the box.

  • Tweeting from the company account without replying to mentions or DMs.

  • Developing systems and tools without consulting the people who use them.

These are all one-way, top-down communication methods that convey an exceedingly clear message.

“I’m the leader. I know best. Now do this.”

It’s time we finally let these archaic concepts about leadership and communication die their final deaths. Instead, let us engage our teams and ask open-ended questions. Let us ensure we provide a forum to express opinions and ideas while awarding appropriate credit and recognition for them. Let us ask for feedback on new initiatives or changes during design, instead of after implementation. The responsibility is on us as leaders to not only be open to receiving communication, but to intentionally and enthusiastically promote it. Engage with your team to let them know that you are there, you are available, and you are actively listening to what they have to say. This conveys a new, positive, message from their leader—one backed with action.

“Your thoughts matter; what you say matters.”

The benefits to enacting true two-way communication within your team or organization are endless. You will be shocked at the things you learn and the people who surprise you with perspectives and ideas you had not, and likely never would have, considered. Your employees will feel a sense of belonging and appreciation that can only come from being listened to and recognized for the value of their thoughts. It encourages your employees to be curious and bold, to tackle difficult problems with complex and innovative solutions.

Let us always remember, we are humans leading other humans, and once upon a time we were also an entry-level employee with some big ideas. We simply received an opportunity to share them.

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