Communication is one of those elemental things, like breathing or water that’s so essential to our existence that we often take it for granted. This means it is often taken as a given. Yet anyone who has spent any time in an organisation or as part of a team will have experienced very different levels of communication prowess.
Some leaders effortlessly pull together ideas and connect them to others in a way that conveys both meaning and energy. Others struggle, sometimes painfully, to get their ideas across – even when the ‘content’ is every bit as good.
As playwright George Bernard Shaw wryly observed,
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
In a leadership context this has always been a problem. Today it is more so. About my Brain Institute founder, argues that we now live in the Imagination Age, where ideas and creativity are more important that information. I think she is right. This places an even greater premium on developing the ability to communicate – and not just at the leadership level.
In the Imagination Age, leadership is democratised. Value is created by people at every level within a business (and the ever-growing numbers of workers outside of a traditional employment structure).
We must all work to improve our communication effectiveness. With the help of neuroscience we are now better equipped to do so. It is the glue to the effective collaboration that is fundamental to high performance today.
HOW communication FITS IN OUR LEADERSHIP MODEL
THE 3 ELEMENTS OF Communication
Communication is a well-developed set of abilities to impart information or exchange thoughts, ideas and feelings with others.
In several South African tribes, the formal greeting between people begins when they silently look into each other’s eyes for 5-15 seconds (uncomfortable to most reading this!). They then speak the words that, translated, mean something like, “I see you”. This salutation reminds people of the importance of being present for anyone they greet.
Such thinking is a million miles away from what most of us experience in our busy westernised lives. The press of time and technology mean that we are increasingly distracted – indeed the very opposite of ‘present’.
In a leadership context, this is a big problem. As Peter Drucker noted,
The most important thing in communication is often hearing what isn't said.
If we are to get the most from our teams, we have to take the time to manage our state to be truly present. People know when this happens – and when it is feigned. Leaders must manage their sense of impatience and defensiveness and listen attentively. We need to pause our inner dialogue.
Leaders who are noted for their presence are diverse. Former US President Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama are both famed for the way they make those in their presence feel. Great CEOs are similarly often credited with the ability to listen with intent whilst creating a sense of calm, even within a small space of time.
Having the ability to articulate our inner thoughts, ideas and needs in a clear, concise and authentic manner is something we need to master.
Knowing how to say what needs to be said in a way that matches an audience’s mood and learning preference is crucial, as is checking in to make sure that the intended message has been understood. Yet so much of modern corporate communication is in the ‘transmit’ mode.
No attempt is made to adjust the tone or style of content to match audience expectations or needs. Hence over-long and impersonal emails, texts and voice messages. Communication ‘efficiency’ trumps genuine connection.
As leaders we can and must also be human. It is OK to let down our guard when communicating. To admit to our feelings, our doubts and concerns. Whatever we do, we are in the business of leading people. So speak, think and act like a human!
Working in our increasingly complex world is overwhelming for many. It is no coincidence that stress and mental health issues in the work place are at historical highs. Part of a good leaders’ skill is the ability to break down complexity into smaller parts that are easier to understand, process and action.
In neuroscience this process is often described as ‘chunking down’. It means to break down the big picture into manageable pieces that are less obscure and more specific.
Some leaders enjoy the abstract and of course, ‘big picture’ thinking is key to developing successful business strategies. That’s great, but it is not enough. Smart leaders must also be able to connect the big ideas to the practical applications that will bring them about.
That’s about painting the big picture for the team/business, but also helping people to understand at least the first few stages of what they need to do to make it a reality.
The brain is great at connecting patterns. If we can see the first few tasks, it is easier for us to see, or at least imagine that we will be able to build the next stages after those (even if we don’t yet know what they are). Good leaders to not only tell us where we are going, they also have to show us how to get there.