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, particularly at the senior level.

Those in the driver’s seat of an organization become a figurehead for your external and internal brand. They influence the overall company 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.

Free ebook – 14 steps to great internal communication

Discover the essential elements of effective internal comms with this practical ebook.

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 the middle or line management level, and among your colleagues.

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.

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 in the spotlight, it becomes a challenge.

The waffler

Ever listen 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.

The informant

There’s a huge difference between information and communication. There are those who hear of the need for increased leadership communication and 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.

Boss giving presentation

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, and 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.  

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 surrounded by engineers and developers.) If you need to dig out the thesaurus each time your boss talks to you, you’ve got a problem.

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 we also want to create psychological safety in the workplace, so reining in the knee-jerk displays of emotion is pretty important.

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 behaviors 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 over the weekend, gossip about rumors flying around the office, or generally talk to you like a friend rather than someone they manage, there can be all manner of issues.

Free ebook – 14 steps to great internal communication

Discover the essential elements of effective internal comms with this practical ebook.

How to tell your boss they have 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; a third say it causes low morale, and a quarter attribute poor communication to missed performance goals. 18% report that a failure to communicate effectively has caused lost sales, sometimes totaling into the six-figure range (Source: Fast Company).

Poor comms is, in a word, costly.

Here are some ways to help address and manage the issue:

Go in with a plan for how to tell your boss

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 tell your boss about them, steering the conversation so you stand a greater chance of getting what you’re looking for.

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 thinking on the spot and the chances are, it won’t be polished or carefully considered. 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 a conversation in 30 seconds flat.   

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 tell your boss that more detailed leadership communication is needed. In time, they’ll shift to giving more information unprompted.

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 – and 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, and get clarity from the jargonist. They can help steer the direction of the conversation and encourage better understanding. Questions will again let your boss know there are gaps in their leadership communication.

Don’t be afraid to interrupt

We’re raised to steer clear of interrupting or talking over someone; it’s rude and antagonizing, and if that individual is your senior, it’s often perceived as disrespectful. However, 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.  

Employee telling boss something over coffee

Tell your boss what you do like

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 productive meeting, or deliver a well-executed update, shoot over a quick “thanks for that, I found it really helpful,” or a “thanks for the clear, well laid-out brief.” They’re more likely to replicate the approach if they understand it worked well. And if they do a bad job… silence will speak volumes by contrast.

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 discussed or asked of you. 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.

Free ebook – 14 steps to great internal communication

Discover the essential elements of effective internal comms with this practical ebook.

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 you receive a poorly written email, don’t be afraid to tell your boss you’d like to schedule a meeting to go over the details. If their typical company update is a 2,000-word, jargon-filled employee email 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.

Tell your boss it’s 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 on our meetings with a bullet-pointed email of what you’re looking for from me,” or “I sometimes struggle 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.

Tell your boss directly – but pick the right time, place and mindset

Shooting your boss down in front of their peers, their 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’re 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”, to “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 telling your boss about the issue. Going in guns blazing is a recipe for failure.

Tell your boss in 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.

Get an internal translator

If your boss is jeopardizing your internal comms strategy by failing to communicate effectively with staff, the impact on morale and engagement can be significant. Use internal resources 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 words going out over various internal communication channels; a designer to “tidy up” their presentation, or someone from Marketing to cast an eye over the employee email newsletter. If their verbal comms leave something to be desired, go for the communication 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 foundation 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 – and shouldn’t – have to be that way. It’s the crux of being able to perform your role and engage with your organization: so next time you find your boss falling afoul of one of these communication sins, call it out. Diplomatically, of course.

Free ebook – 14 steps to great internal communication

Discover the essential elements of effective internal comms with this practical ebook.