We look to managers for guidance, direction, and information. Effective leadership communication should be part and parcel of the job at senior levels, so, how should you tell your boss they’re, well…not a good communicator?
We talk a great deal about the value and importance of leadership communication, and particularly at senior level.
Those in the driving seat of an organization become a figurehead for your entire brand. They influence the overall culture, have a tremendous impact on employee engagement, and are often the most credible and trusted sources during times of change or crisis.
We assume, given that level of responsibility, that our leaders are competent communicators. However, as many employees agree: this isn’t a given. In fact, one study of 1,000 employees found a staggering 91% felt their leaders lacked effective communication skills.
The trouble is, they’re your boss, and how can you tell your boss their behavior is a problem?
Poor leadership communication can be costly though, so here are some tips on how to tell your boss (nicely) that there’s ‘room for improvement’ on the comms front.
What does bad leadership communication look like?
Before we dive into how to manage it, it’s worth looking at what falls under the category of poor communication at work. This list isn’t exclusive to those residing in the C-suite: they’re traits often seen at middle or line management level, and among your colleagues.
#1: The non-communicator
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the worst communicators are those who simply don’t communicate at all. If you have a boss who elects to sit in their glass office, speak exclusively to a select handful of ‘trusted advisors’ and leave the job of internal communication to others, you may have a bad one.
#2: The introvert
We have to cut our leaders a bit of a break here: not all are born natural public speakers. It’s a skill that can take time to master and standing in front of a room of people can be pretty terrifying. But if your leader hides behind emails, avoids public situations or is simply ‘of few words’ when placed under the spotlight, it becomes a challenge.
#3: The waffler
Ever listened to someone explain something for a solid 15 minutes, only to come away no clearer on what they were trying to say? Vague communicators can say an awful lot without actually communicating anything. But when you’re trying to take instruction, get briefed on a task or understand something important to your role, that lack of clarity can have dangerous repercussions.
#4: The informant
There’s a huge difference between information and communication. There are those who hear of the need for increased leadership communication, and will elect to fire off more emails, updates, briefs, links to various websites, documents or policies. Ironically, this information-overload can actually be a barrier to effective communication and understanding.
#5: The shirker
With great power, so they say, comes great responsibility. This means for those at the top, there will be occasions when it’s on their head to take ownership for wrongdoings, shortcomings, failures: or to make those tough calls that are necessary for change. If your boss shirks responsibility, points the finger of blame in the direction of others, or refuses to step up and communicate when the heat is on, issues will only escalate.
#6: The jargonist
Ah yes, we know them well. Our workplaces are filled with an array of business jargon and depending on your industry, it can also get pretty technical or verbose (I speak as a comms professional in a software business surrounding by engineers and developers.) If you need to dig out the thesaurus each time your boss talks to you, you’ve got a problem.
#7: The aggressor
Unfortunately, not all leaders are diplomats and we have to accept that they are, after all, only human. But if you have a leader who consistently adopts the wrong tone, gets aggressive, defensive, accusatory or simply has a knack for saying the wrong thing, effective leadership communication becomes near impossible. We don’t want robots for leaders; but reining in the knee-jerk displays of emotion is pretty important.
#8: The inappropriate talker
Inappropriateness can span a whole range of sins. Sadly, we don’t yet live in a world where sexism, racism, homophobia and discrimination are extinct: we’d hope those at the top would know better, but these continue to be seen even at the highest level.
There are also those who seem to forget they’re the boss. The art of effective leadership communication calls for knowing boundaries and setting the correct tone for an employee-manager relationship. If your boss oversteps and likes to tell you how ‘wasted’ they got on the weekend, gossip about rumors flying around the office, or generally talk to you like a mate rather than someone they manage, there can be all manner of issues.
How to give feedback on poor communication skills
Just so we’re clear: we’re not advocating subordination or trying to create an uprising against leadership communication fouls in the office. There’s a right time, a right place and a right way to address your boss’s shortcomings and we definitely don’t want to leave them feeling threatened, inadequate or defensive.
However, 44% of employees say communication barriers have delayed or derailed projects; 1/3 say it causes low morale and ¼ attribute poor communication to missed performance goals. 18% report that a failure to communicate effectively has caused lost sales: sometimes totalling into the six figures in value (Source: Fast Company).
Poor comms is, in a word, costly.
Here are some ways to help address and manage the issue:
1. Go in with a plan
If you have a pre-planned meeting, a project you’re working on or anything you know you need your boss’s input on, go in armed with a plan.
Identify what particular brand of poor communicator they fall under, and how best to overcome it. What do you need from them? What questions do you need to ask to get that information? If you have pre-defined objectives, you can steer conversation and stand a greater chance of getting what you’re looking for.
2. Active listening and mirroring
Communication isn’t a one-way street: there is a giver and a receiver.
So, play your part. Active listening and mirroring back what you’re hearing from your boss can ensure you’re both clear on what’s being asked, and keep the communication flowing. When we talk, we’re think on-the-spot and the chances are, it won’t be polished or carefully thought through. Mirroring or repeating back forces the person speaking to hear what they’ve said and highlights any gaps or issues they may have missed.
Plus, if you’re showing interest and giving them affirmative conversation cues – even just the occasional, ‘Right, yes, OK, great’ – they’re more likely to keep engaging with you. A silent and disengaged listener can shut down conversation in 30 seconds flat.
3. Reframe and clarify
If you’re not sure what your boss is trying to say or ask of you, don’t leave it to chance. Reframe what they’ve said in a different way or seek clarification by filling in the gaps. For example:
Boss: “It just doesn’t look right to me.”
Reframe: “Is there one element in particular that you don’t feel works, or does none of it meet the brief? Do you have an example I could take a look at to understand a bit better what you’re looking for?
Boss: “I need those figures as soon as possible”
Clarify: “You’d like the Q1 pipeline sales projection figures by the end of the week?”
These actions don’t just help clarify in the moment; when done regularly, they subtly educate your boss that more detailed leadership communication is important and needed. In time, they’ll shift to giving more information unprompted.
4. Question, question, question
Most of the time, when a senior leader comes to you with a brief, directive or request, they’ve already gone through the thought process and decision-making leading up to it. They come to you with the conclusion, without any of the context.
So, ask. Questions are perhaps the most powerful tool at our disposal in the face of a poor communicator: they draw out the introvert; hone in the focus of a waffler; get clarity from the jargonist. They can help steer the direction of conversation and encourage better understanding. Questions will again let your boss know there are gaps in their leadership communication.
5. Don’t be afraid to interrupt
We’re raised to steer clear of interrupting or talking over someone; it’s rude and antagonising, and if that individual is your senior, it’s often perceived as disrespectful. However, managed correctly? It can be done successfully and may be the saving grace of effective leadership communication.
If you’re dealing with a waffler or you’ve had a jargonist drop a load of nonsensical instruction your way, a simple “excuse me, sorry – I want to ensure I’m understanding and meeting your expectations. Could I ask you to repeat / clarify / explain?” can help get things back on track. You can even revert back to high school and raise your hand if you’re uncomfortable chipping in – it’s a simple action, but wonderfully effective.
6. Give positive feedback
Time to manage your manager. Recognizing and providing positive feedback for the behaviors you want to see more of is a powerful way to highlight what they do well – and what they don’t.
Hopefully your boss isn’t a complete failure on all communication fronts; so next time they give a great brief, host a good meeting, or deliver a good update, shoot over a quick ‘thanks for that, I found it really helpful’, or a ‘thanks for the brief, I found it really clear and well laid-out’. They’re more likely to replicate the approach if they understand it worked well. If they do a bad job… silence will speak volumes by contrast.
7. Follow up
It’s the salesperson’s trick of the trade for a reason. If you’ve had a meeting with your boss, follow up with an email to confirm what you understand has been asked of you or discussed. Or alternately, if they’re the ones who have shot over an email, give them a quick call or swing by their desk to confirm what you’ve understood from it. It’s mirroring, but on the next level: and provides both of you with the opportunity to reflect on the communication and ensure mutual understanding.
8. Work with their comms strength – or ask for alternatives
Is your boss a natural talker, but terrible at giving written briefs? Or perhaps they do well with informal, at-the-desk chats, but not so well when placed in the more structured environment of a meeting room? Work to their strengths where possible.
If your boss fires over a poorly written email, don’t be afraid to ask for a meeting. If their typical company update is a 2,000 word jargon-filled newsletter that causes glazed eyes around the office, but they’re known to be good on-the-ground chatting to staff, maybe ask for small town hall meetings or even a video alternative.
9. Make it about you
It’s their job to manage, support, direct and develop you. So, rather than going with a direct attack of, ‘you’re not communicating clearly with me’ or ‘you’re bad at providing written briefs’, re-position it to be about helping you.
For example; “I find it really helpful when you follow up our meetings with a bulletpointed email of what you’re looking for from me’, or ‘I struggle sometimes to recall all the information we discuss, could I ask you to write it down?’. This shifts from being an attack on them, to a need on your side.
10. Raise it – but pick the right time, place and mindset
Shooting your boss down in front of their peers, own manager, the rest of the team, or in a public meeting is clearly not going to sit well. If you have a reasonably good relationship with your boss and feel this is something you can address face-to-face, ask for a private and informal chat.
Go in prepared with a recent example and select your words carefully: you aren’t going on the attack, you are providing constructive feedback. There’s a big jump from, “the update you gave on the Anderson project made no sense and I didn’t understand anything you said”, and “I’ve been having some difficulties getting all the information I need about the Anderson project. I want to ensure I’m delivering everything you need, so can we chat about how we can overcome the challenges I’ve been facing?”.
If you’ve been feeling frustrated, agitated or angry at the poor leadership communication you’ve been receiving, ensure you give yourself some cooling down time before addressing it. Going in all guns blazing is a recipe for failure.
11. Give them a burger
One of the oldest feedback tricks in the book is the hamburger technique: sandwiching the negative feedback between two positives, in order to lessen the sting. If you’re worried about bruising an ego or landing yourself in hot water, cushion the blow.
“Hi Luke, I really appreciate you taking the time to send regular updates and information about the project, it’s hugely helpful. (BUN)
“I do find that sometimes the information is difficult to read and digest as it’s quite long and technical. (BURGER)
“But you’re great at breaking down and explaining things when we talk, so I wondered if we could schedule in regular catch-ups to chat through the updates instead.” (BUN).
Try to address leadership communication problems by always providing an alternative or a solution.
12. Get an internal translator
If your boss is jeopardising your internal comms strategy by failing to communicate effectively with staff, the impact on morale and engagement can be significant. Use internal resource where possible to ‘translate’ their communications into something you – and your peers – can better digest.
For example, using a ghostwriter or a content writer to proof and ‘rejig’ written communicators; a designer to ‘tidy up’ their presentation, or someone from Marketing to cast an eye over the employee email newsletter. If their verbal comms leaves something to be desired, go for the cascade and use line managers as the translators. This can be positioned tactfully as taking some of the time or pressure off them, or simply helping them to make the most of their message.
Speaking up when you need to tell your boss to change
Communication is an art, and sadly despite being the root of effective management, not all leaders master it.
Fear of offending or overstepping the mark leaves many employees suffering in silence, but it doesn’t – shouldn’t – be that way. It’s the crux of being able to perform your role and engage with your organization: so next time your find your boss falling foul of one of these communication sins, call it out. Diplomatically.