“Leadership,” the late organizational consultant Warren Bennis said, “is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Most people in business can think back to times they brought a new idea to life, steered an organization through troubled times or an outright crisis, or closed one chapter of their professional lives and moved forward into a new one.
Solid intuition drives new ideas, analytical skill helps crisis management, courage powers change and transition — and communication underpins all these qualities. It’s how business leaders literally translate actions into ideas that uplift and inspire their teams and peers.
Indeed, our journeys as business leaders go hand-in-hand with our journeys as better communicators.
Why then, do we so often struggle in this area?
Even the most confident and charismatic among us have faced moments we couldn’t seem to meet with the right words, especially when those around us are looking for guidance and answers. In fact, research presented by the Harvard Business Review suggests nearly 70% of managers often feel uncomfortable communicating with their teams. Close to 40% are hesitant to give negative feedback if they feel an employee is likely to take it badly. And just under a quarter are hesitant to demonstrate vulnerability.
Most leaders are likely to identify with at least one of these difficulties, no matter where we are on our professional journeys. Further, communication fatigue — where our ability to forge new and creative ways to reach our audiences is strained — can stem from repeated crises that have become all too commonplace in the COVID-19 era.
Personal vision is never truly lost, however. Whenever expressing it becomes complicated, there are four core tips to keep it visible.
First, embrace authenticity. Get personal, in other words. In many ways, being our full, authentic selves in professional spaces goes against lessons we have been taught about work, with the desire for conformity being more typical, and more within our collective comfort zone. Keep in mind, though, that authenticity does not have to mean disruptive, at least not in a negative way.
Leaders can promote environments of truth by creating spaces where everyone’s opinion is valued, every idea is worth being voiced, mistakes are accepted as part of the journey, and personal passions are celebrated. The details will be different for each leader and company. But there is no better way to bring these spaces to reality than by embodying such principles yourself.
Second, identify how you listen to those around you, practicing the skill of listening with your whole mind. Cutting down distractions in the middle of a conversation is a start.
But focus on the role of non-verbal cues, like keeping eye contact and making encouraging, positive facial expressions. Absorb ideas fully, even when you don’t initially agree with them.
Third, strive for clarity, even if it means changing the mediums you use for communication. George Bernard Shaw perhaps said it best in observing, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
For example, to preserve nuance and even the tone of communication, expressions of complex ideas should take place over the phone or in a meeting, not through email. Conversations should not end without all sides understanding where the other is coming from, and having a common grasp on the path forward.
Finally, to give advice that comes a little too easily from a public relations pro, embrace a storytelling approach wherever possible. There will always be situations where clients, colleagues, and employees will need straight, unfettered facts.
But consider that research suggests the average person has more than 6,000 thoughts a day, many of them reactions to the various external stimuli and messaging we encounter.
If that figure comes as a shock, it might be because very few of those thoughts actually “stick.” Renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner has suggested that humans are 20 times more likely to remember a fact contained in a story versus on its own. Appeals to feelings and shared experiences are capable of powering change and making us more effective, relatable leaders.
There is no instant life hack to stronger communication skills. Like every other aspect of leadership, it takes a commitment to continued development and improvement. After all, our ideas and vision gain even more power when seen and understood by others.
This article originally appeared in the Memphis Business Journal.