Power of Communication, Part II
“We hurt ourselves when our words don’t align with our actions.” – Adm. Mike Mullen
This is Part II of a series. See Part I here.
It’s amazing how much of effective communication can be boiled down to common sense. As I continue through Helio Fred Garcia’s Power of Communication, it’s almost frustrating how remarkably simple his concepts are. Yet they are so easily missed, so easily forgotten when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of implementation. Since we communicate so often and with so little effort, we have a tendency to think we’re naturally able to communicate effectively – that what we say will convey exactly what we want and accomplish our desired goal. As often as this doesn’t work out in casual communication, what makes us think it will go any better when we speak from a position of leadership? In Part I we talked about communicating with the desired outcome already in mind – strategically working backwards from the ends to the means – and having a genuine concern for what is valuable to your audience. The next thing that Mr. Garcia points leaders towards is action.
“Communication sets expectations; actions fulfill or fail to fulfill those expectations” – Helio Fred Garcia, The Power of Communication
It’s never enough to simply say. A leader has to do. More specifically, what a leader does has to match what was said.
Let me tell you: people are smart. Any time there’s a community, whether it a classroom or a country, individuals emerge as leaders of that particular group. Maybe not everyone in the group is happy about that, but the authority of the leader is derived by most of the group saying “Yeah, we’ll follow that one.” But with that authority comes visibility. Now the group is watching and listening to the leader way more closely than they are to each other. So when there’s a gap between what is said and what is done, people catch it. They catch it quick.
Each slip is a crack in the leader’s levee of authority, a levee built out of the trust and confidence of the group. That authority will quickly erode if the leader doesn’t put forth the due diligence in synchronizing word and deed. Losing that trust is far easier than building it back.
That’s not to say that the cracks can’t be repaired. Sometimes it becomes apparent that fulfilling the expectations set by the initial communication aren’t going to be feasible. What do we do then? First of all, don’t assume the group can’t see what’s going on. They can, and if you don’t step up and define the issue right away they’ll do it for you, and it won’t be to your benefit. So be honest, be clear, keep what the group values forefront as you communicate to reset the expectation.
“Resetting an expectation may cause some short-term pain. But it’s preferable to wholesale disappointment.” – Helio Fred Garcia, The Power of Communication
Speaking of stepping up, this brings us to the next point: rapidity of action, or speed.
Why does speed matter in communication? Garcia calls it “first-mover advantage”: getting on top of an issue quickly gives you a competitive edge.
Problems are inevitable. Controversial situations happen, and bad news doesn’t get better with time. An ineffective leader will shy away from publicly addressing the problem, afraid that it will give the appearance of incompetence. Communicating effectively means embracing the issues and moving rapidly to ensure they are defined appropriately. A group can tolerate problems if they know that leadership is aware of and actively working to handle the issue. They want to be assured that the leaders are in control.
The worst thing you can do as a leader with a crisis on your hands is not communicate at all.
“Silence – or delay in engaging stakeholders as a crisis unfolds – creates the perception of indifference, inviting critics, stakeholders, and other audiences to paint a leader as uncaring.” – Helio Fred Garcia, The Power of Communication
The leader should be the one doing the “painting”. The key to this is making sure the group becomes aware of the issue through you, which means you have to present them the information before it gets to them through any other means. Garcia lists three things the leader needs to define: the issue, the leader’s motives, and the leader’s actions. In other words, tell them what is going on (or has happened), what you want to see happen, and what you’re doing about it and why. This way you set the tone for the situation, meeting it head on and demonstrating your ability to take problems in stride.
Remember, effective communication requires a strategic frame of mind. Be passive, and you’ll wind up playing defense. Seize the opportunity to define the situation, make a quick but sound decision, and match your words with action. This way, you create forward momentum to carry your team through whatever problem they’re facing without losing their hard-won trust.