3 Common Communication Mistakes Leaders Make

Communication skills. Those oft-cited, intangible, almost-mythic abilities so regularly called for professionally, yet so readily bemoaned for their absence. Increasingly the role of leadership is moving from ‘hard’ technical abilities to the ‘soft’ interpersonal skills, and communication plays a fundamental role. The challenge remains however, that with authority frequently comes an adherence to the stereotypical superior/subordinate paradigm and a breakdown of critical communication channels. Leaders frequently fall into the trap of three common communication mistakes: inconsistency between verbal and non-verbal cues, being driven by unhelpful leadership attitudes or ‘frames’, and just ‘going through the motions’. We explore these pitfalls here, along with some strategies on how leaders can avoid them.

1. Saying One Thing, Meaning Another

Ever heard the statistic that 93% of communication is non-verbal?

Or that the actual words we use only account for 7% of the message?

This interesting yet over-simplified factoid comes courtesy of the work of Dr. Albert Mehrabian, as published in his 1971 book, Silent Messages. His assertion, based on experiments, was that when we express attitudes and emotions, the message is comprised 55% by body movements (posture, gestures, facial expression), 38% by voice (volume, pitch, tone), and 7% by the actual words we say.

However, this isn’t at all to suggest that the words we say don’t matter! Of course the words we choose are of significant importance. What Mehrabian proposed however is that when it comes to communicating a message, what matters most is the congruency between words, voice, and body language. When they don’t match, people will tend to believe the expression and tone over the words. How often do we see safety leaders droning on in a boring, monotonous way about the ‘importance of safety’, not realising the underlying message most will take away is in fact the opposite!

As if communication wasn’t already challenging enough, consider what happens when we use electronic forms of communication, such as email and text message – context, tone, emphasis and body language are non-existent! Ever sent a well-intentioned email to a colleague only to receive a very curt reply? Chances are your message has been misinterpreted, and has only served to widen the communication gap between you and your colleague. Effective communicators ensure they are understood through consistency in body language, voice, and their choice of words.

Tear Down This Wall!

Removing any boundaries between you and the accurate reception of your message is critical. While electronic communications may be convenient, and are certainly an inescapable reality of the workplace, we do have options when it comes to hearing and being heard:

  • Management by ‘walking around’, popularised during the 1980s but enjoying a revival today, can be an effective strategy. Essentially this applies a name to the informal process of walking through a work area and checking in on your team members, the idea being that by a leader’s physical presence in their team’s work environment, discussion happens, concerns are raised, and ideas exchanged. The flow-on effect is greater opportunity for interpersonal interaction and the addressing of any issues/challenges for the continued effective functioning of the team.
  • Using more expressive forms of electronic communication can revolutionise your working relationships. Skype and other video conferencing services make communication more visual and personable. Try recording a video message to mix things up, rather than sending the typical long-winded email devoid of expression.
  • Ever sent an email to a colleague, only to realise they’re less than 10 metres from you? Face-to-face communication goes a long way toward removing ambiguities, and helps build rapport and trust. Schedule face-to-face discussions and meetings when possible, via teleconferencing when not, or just walk over and visit your colleague in person for a chat.
  • There may be structured opportunities to communicate in person during your day. Toolbox talks, safety meetings, or even breaks in the crib or tea room may be an ideal opportunity to get face-to-face. It doesn’t always have to be work chat either – taking an interest in your team and what matters to them helps build trust.
  • Try scheduling regular team meetings with for the purpose of allowing your team members to raise issues and promote discussion. While we may often feel we are ‘too busy’ to allow time for informal discussion – booking time for this sends the message that everyone’s opinion matters.

2. Acting from Unhelpful Leadership Frames

One challenge of becoming a leader is managing the conventional attitudes that historically come with the role. Many of the cues we may have grown accustomed to suggest being a leader means telling other people what to do, pulling them into line when they don’t, and making the ‘difficult decisions’. While these duties may be applicable in some instances, leadership is much more than just that. We call these attitudes Leadership Frames, and suggest that as leaders we may at times operate from either a “Parent” Frame or “Child” Frame.

Parent: ‘My way or the highway”

The Parent Frame, as the name suggests, acts like a parent and treats colleagues accordingly, as children. Leaders who operate predominantly from this perspective are typically critical of others and the organisation, directive, overbearing, and have a tendency towards micro-management. Operating from this frame can mean being driven by insecurity in the leadership role, and this may manifest as the leader believing they are indispensable, and that others are incompetent and untrustworthy. They must be ‘right’ at all times, always exerting control, and do not take kindly to feedback.

If a ‘parent’ style leader has to implement a new safety initiative, they’ll likely enforce it through trying to ‘catch people out’ in their team, and punishing them for non-compliance.

Sounds like: “I know you are the project manager here, but given the importance of this project, I’d like to be involved in all communications”.

Child: “It’s not my fault/responsibility”

As a leader operating from a Child Frame, we commonly see the shirking of responsibility, particularly when things don’t go to plan. Coercion and blame are used as communication and negotiation tools, and being liked is more important than standing up for what they believe. They will frequently be averse to change, avoid or procrastinate where possible, and may lash out with inappropriate emotion.

If a ‘child’ style leader has to implement a new safety initiative, they’ll likely plead with their team to ‘do them a favour’ and just do it, because it ‘wasn’t my idea’.

Sounds like: “It’s not my fault we didn’t meet our targets this month, my team never listen to me and they wouldn’t know a hard day’s work if it slapped them in the face!”

Consider these frames from your perspective for a moment – would either be particularly persuasive as a style of communication?

Adult: Accepting my Responsibility

It might seem obvious, but as adults we should act like adults, and treat others accordingly! Operating from an Adult Frame, where we’re on equal footing (even in a leadership role) with our colleagues means managing stress and inappropriate emotions in a controlled way, being open to feedback and learning, accepting due responsibility, knowing we have a choice, and being willing to lead by example – not easy attributes to live up to!

When an ‘adult’ style leader has to implement a new safety initiative, they’ll ‘walk the talk’ by first embodying helpful behaviors, discuss openly with their team the new initiative, and be open to feedback and consultation in making it work.

Sounds like: “We have a new safety tool at our disposal, and I understand and acknowledge the feeling that some aspects may need adjustment to suit our work area and processes. I’ll feed this info back to management. Let’s get on board with this initiative in the meantime and use it to help us all get home safe”.

Operating from an Adult Frame is no guarantee that those around us will do the same, but it certainly increases the odds. Our incentive however in treating others as adults is that we challenge them to respond in kind, and in doing so prompt self-motivated, goal-oriented behaviors. Chances are you and your team will find work a more enjoyable place too!

3. Going Through the Motions

While there are definitely times in communicating that there’s no avoiding dull subject matter, if you don’t care, why should your team care? You may not always have a deep emotional connection to the subject matter of your conversation, but it’s important to at least find some way to engage authentically with it.

What’s in it for them?

People are more likely to ‘buy’ a message they have an emotional connection to – they’re also more likely to remember it! This doesn’t mean you have to establish a meaningful personal affiliation with each individual, but you can link even the driest of messages to an emotional prompt. Try adding humour, invite people to share something from their world, or use stories to engage your audience.

Making Your Message Inspirational/Aspirational:

Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech is often cited as one of the finest pieces of public oration in history. Regardless of the evocative subject matter, it is highly emotive, and an impressive display of the power of effective delivery. Best-selling American writer Nancy Duarte assesses just why this historic speech is so powerful and has broken it down into some key elements. Some of the things King does really well are:

  • Repetition of Key Phrases – “I have a dream.” A clear and simple message that is repeated and reinforced helps tie your message together and allows people a key ‘take away’ to hold on to.
  • Voice: King was a Baptist preacher – not that you need to speak as brilliantly as him! His voice is clear, projected, confident, and he takes good pauses to let the words sink in. Your toolbox talk may not be a civil rights address, but developing your public speaking techniques will have a dramatic effect on the extent to which your message is heard.
  • Painting a Picture: King uses metaphor and simile throughout: “Like a bad cheque.” Relate to your audience using examples and language from their world, universal concepts that are easily understood.
  • Comparison: Drawing a link between the current situation versus the desired situation provides your audience with a neat summary of the status quo and a transition/change process that’s readily understood.

Our messages as leaders are interpreted with 93% non-verbal cues, but 100% of the message needs to match in intent and connect effectively with the audience. Avoiding the common communication mistakes leaders make will foster an atmosphere of organisational citizenship and empower your team to achieve their best.

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak” – Epictetus.

Dom O’Brien
Innovation Specialist, Sentis


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