The single best way new leaders can improve their communication skills
is for them to learn to listen actively. Two parties are involved in
any communication; a speaker and a listener. It is more exciting, more
dominant, to speak than to listen, so many times what people end up
doing (leaders included) is to use the time they are supposed to be
listening to think up new things they will say once the speaker stops
speaking. This is listening of a sort, but it is not active listening!
In active listening, the listener attentively focuses on what the
speaker is saying so as to maximize comprehension of what is being
said. Active listening is a sign of respect. Leaders who listen
actively come to command the respect of their colleagues because they
communicate respect. If a new leader can do only one thing, active
listening is likely to have the most immediate impact.
Listening well sensitizes a leader to the myriad ways that messages can
fail to get across as intended. Successful communication depends on
successful transmission of a message from a speaker to a listener.
While some message usually gets through, anyone who has ever played the
childhood game 'telephone' knows that it is often garbled and altered
during transmission. Clearly stated messages may not have been listened
to all that actively, and even motivated listeners may misinterpret
vague or complex messages. In any event, new leaders should become
aware that what they say may not be comprehended as they intended. To
maximize the possibility of being correctly understood, new leaders
should do two things: make sure that their communications are concise,
clear and well written, and check to see that key information was
comprehended as desired.
There is no substitute for strong writing and presenting skills. While
not everyone is born a great communicator, effective writing and
speaking skills can be learned by most motivated students willing to
practice repeatedly until their skills improve. Being willing to have
one's efforts critiqued by someone competent to take on an editorial
role is also essential, as improvements are impossible to make without
constructive accurate feedback.
Receiver comprehension, not sender eloquence, determines communication
success. Presentation, whether before a group, by phone, or by email,
cannot be judged successful until there is confirmation that the
intended message was received. Few people have the time to conduct
formal studies after each significant communication, but anyone can
(and should consider) doing spot checks as proves appropriate.
The very worst method of communication leaders might attempt is to make
employees play a "guess what I'm thinking" game. Employees should never
have to read a leader's mind. Instead, employees should always
(ideally) know what is expected of them and where they stand. Secrecy
(when it is not vital to shareholder interests) or intentional
obfuscation by a leader (as part of a 'job security' strategy) is
seldom a good idea. Some closed-lipped leaders attempt to justify their
communication failures by saying they like to play it "close-to-their
chest" or they use a "need-to-know" criteria. No matter what flavor of
rationalization they might use, however, their inability or
unwillingness to communicate effectively makes them far less effective
than their more communicative colleagues.