I’ve long believed that successful leadership depends more on good communication than it does on making all the right decisions. Many leaders fail not because of bad decisions, but because they didn’t take the time to communicate their decisions to the right people, at the right time, in the right order. In my experience, 20 percent of good leadership is about making the right decisions; the other 80 percent is appropriately communicating those decisions.
During the depths of the recession, I had to entirely eliminate eight positions at my organization and reduce hours for fifteen part-time staff. For a significant change like this, appropriate communication is vital. We had people who walked into work on a Monday morning and left minutes later, unemployed. We had remaining staff members who just learned they would no longer be working with their best friend. We had family members who were hurting for their dad or mom or spouse. We had eight people we loved and cherished now entering an unfavorable job climate where one in six people were unemployed and looking for work.
Great communication is needed for challenging leadership transitions, but it is also needed for good changes like adding products, expanding distribution, or relocating your offices. You can make a lousy decision but do well with communication and implementation, and it can be a success. On the other hand, you can make a great decision and lose the battle because your communication is weak.
Communication isn’t an exact science. It requires strategy, assessment, execution, reassessment, more execution, and finally, evaluation of what worked and what didn’t.
Strategies for Great Communication
Here are three very important strategies in becoming an effective communicator for your organization.
1. Don’t forget “the meeting before the meeting.”
I learned this tip more than 20 years ago from John Maxwell while sitting in a conference in Anderson, Indiana. With any change, there are only a handful of people in the room you need to convince. Chances are, you instinctively know who those influencers are; the change is going to go well if those people are on board, and it’s going to go poorly if they aren’t.
Such a person may not be the positional leader. She may not have authority over anything or anyone. But she is a major influencer. Perhaps this is because of how long your influencer has been in the organization, or the strength of her personality, or who she is related to. For whatever reason, that person influences many other people, and you need to meet with her before you meet with everyone else. You must have what Maxwell calls “the meeting before the meeting.”
This one principle will help you so much. It is timeless and overrides tenure. Anytime you want to start something new, make a change, add a program, or expand the budget, don’t skip the meeting before the meeting. Be sure to meet with every key influencer ahead of time. Tell them you need their insights, ask them what questions they have and what additional information they need. Not only will you rally each of them to your cause, you will also learn valuable information about how to better communicate with the rest of the team or organization.
2. Pay close attention to sequencing your communication.
The second important principle to remember is that with any big change, you need a plan for communication. Who should you tell first? Who should you tell next? Who would be hurt if they found out about it from someone else in your organization?
Think about this in your own family. Let’s pretend you are the dad and you just found out you are being transferred. You are going to move your family of six from Minneapolis to Philadelphia.
If this happened, you would think very carefully about sequencing your communication. You wouldn’t tell your kids before you tell your wife. You wouldn’t tell your third grader before you tell your teens. You wouldn’t tell your neighbors or friends at church before you tell all your kids. No, you would carefully sequence the communication, giving each person time to emotionally respond. You would then recruit his or her help in telling the next person.
At the non-profit organization I helped lead for 20 years, we initiated a great deal of change. Our typical communication sequence went something like this:
- Leadership team
- Board members
- Entire staff
- Key leaders, influencers, and stakeholders (we would write their names out and determine who would be talking to them)
- Other invested volunteers
- Entire client (or customer) base
I don’t think anyone ever gets to keep the “Great Communicator” trophy. It’s something you might get for a season, but you start from ground zero the next time a big change is imminent.
3. Take emotional conversations offline.
The third principle of great communication is less about the entire organization, and more about one-on-one communication.
Perhaps you are now or have recently been in conflict with someone. It’s a tense relationship. You dread talking to that person. You avoid seeing him. It may not be too bad right now, but occasionally it heats up. Maybe it’s someone on your team. Maybe a staff member. Maybe a customer.
I’m right, aren’t I? I know I am, because we all have those types of working relationships. And many times, because we don’t like to face these people or talk to them, we resort to email communication. And that just makes the relationship worse.
You should never email when you are in any type of relational conflict with another individual. What is the alternative? Talk with him or her in person so that you can see their eyes, watch their body language, and discern their mood or disposition.
Tim Sanders wrote in a blog post, “Over email, I have no earthly idea what you intend. This is especially true in the pithy thumb-written world of BlackBerry. It wouldn’t be surprising that you and I can get crossways in the up and down world of business. Stuff happens. If we are 100% over email, bad stuff happens to relationships when day-to-day stuff happens.”
He advised readers to take all communication with that individual off-line for one week. Use the phone or have face-to-face meetings, use no email or texting for one entire week, and see if the relationship improves.
I think it is pretty good advice.
There is also some good advice found in a biblical proverb: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
Nearly every week I have meetings, conversations, or email exchanges where I have to remind myself of this principle. They are the types of interactions that could end in a very bad place. Emotions are high, the tension is thick, and many times I’m aware that the outcome rests squarely on my shoulders and my choices.
I’ve seen so many situations where a conversation gets out of control and hurtful words are said in a moment of anger, all because a leader didn’t know how to defuse the situation with a gentle answer (or perhaps because the leader chose not to). I wonder how many staff members have been fired and friendships completely severed because neither individual knew how to minimize the damage through carefully chosen words. I meet people all the time who won’t even speak to a former employer because of the pain.
If we were able to reverse time and observe the conversations that preceded a broken relationship, I wonder how many times we would find that this one principal was ignored.
When I’m in these emotionally-charged situations, I try to remind myself that…
- I don’t have to say everything that comes into my head.
- I don’t have to have the last word.
- As Steven Covey popularized in his seven habits, it actually helps if I seek first to understand rather than to be understood.
- email is a bad tool for resolving conflict. It almost always escalates the tension.
- Phrases such as “you always” and “you never” are rarely helpful.
- Questions are always better than statements.
- I really don’t know it all.
- The issue is probably not the issue. If I listen, I might learn the real issue.
- It doesn’t matter how obvious it seems to me; I do not know the other person’s motives.
This is not a skill to master. Rather, it is a discipline to embody.
- Every time you are introducing change, don’t skip the meeting before the meeting.
- Every time you are managing a crisis, remember to sequence your communication.
- And every time you feel your heart racing and emotional dashboard redlining, refuse to email. Go see the person face to face.
Each of these principles, when practiced, will help leaders become better at communication. Spend time making the best decisions you possibly can with the information you have available. But then spend most of your time focusing on communication.
That is where the battle is won or lost.
Tim Stevens is the executive pastor at Willow Creek Church and has co-authored three books in the “Simply Strategic” series, is author of Pop Goes the Church and the brand new release, Vision: Lost and Found.