I recently had a conversation with one of my product managers where he said, “there is a general underestimation by leaders of what they know, and how valuable it is to share what they know!” He meant this in terms of providing organizational context, and how that might help individuals understand how to more successfully contribute or better understand the “why” behind leadership decisions that might impact them.
As a leader, I consider it my responsibility to focus on creating clarity and a culture of transparency to build an effective and fast moving organization. The challenge I, and others, face is that it is very difficult to know what information, context, or background will be of most value and when it’s the right time to share it. Business leaders shouldn’t talk people’s ears off all day (leadership communication must be concise and intentional), but they can do more to understand what is “most important” to their people.
While closing this gap of understanding is of most concern to those in leadership, an understanding of why this occurs can create empathy and allow for everyone to help solve the problem. It comes down to unconscious bias, and how we can shorten the distance between one another to better understand knowledge gaps and communicate more effectively with one another.
Why Does Leadership Communication Often Miss the Mark?
The discussion I mentioned above with one of my product managers was a very real example. Senior executive leadership at our company had made decisions that our team, and many others, found really hard to understand. After a week or more of struggling with why this decision was made, a member of the senior leadership team sent out an email highlighting what their perspective was on why the decision was made. My PM, in this case, was applauding that executive for sharing their insight while lamenting the lack of context from others up to that point. This is when he said, “I just sense this general underestimation by leaders of what they know, and how valuable it is to share what they know.”
Though the comment was not directed at me as a personal failing, I reflected on why this kind of thing happens and why I might find myself committing the same leadership error. I strongly believe that most leaders have positive intent and want to bring clarity to our organization, but yet we still fail on occasion and miss the mark. The problem, as I see it, is a cognitive blindspot to what is “most important” for me to communicate in the limited opportunities I have to do so.
Anything a leader decides to communicate to their organization goes through several filters, based on unconscious bias, which ultimately leaves a lot of information “on the cutting room floor”. The bias for what leaders decide to share and (sometimes more importantly) not share, is based on good intent; leaders know they need to be concise and intentional in order to be understood, and previous experience is often the basis for what they choose the message to focus on.
The way to overcome this bias is to more effectively engage with your organization to gather information on what matters most to your people, and then including those data points in your decision making for what is (and is not) communicated. The challenge many are facing, especially in a more virtual world, is that tacit knowledge (the stuff that is incredibly valuable, but also very difficult to share) is at a premium, and the traditional mechanisms for acquisition have been cut off. This impact is felt by everyone, not just leadership, and creates a gulf of understanding that can be difficult to overcome.
Personally, I have always subscribed to the philosophy of “management by walking around”, which is something I simply cannot do when everyone is working from the comforts of their own homes. Information that once came from water cooler chatter, or a team lunch at the local taqueria, now requires a scheduled Zoom call or a potentially disruptive IM. For busy leaders who would often use whatever free time their day provided to engage with people, this is a significant paradigm shift…and not everyone has figured out how to adapt in order to keep everyone connected.
How Leaders Can Increase Their Connection
In an effort to be helpful (rather than just pointing out something which may be obvious), here are a few things to help you and your leadership teams improve connections and build relationship:
- I have weekly “Office Hours” and have invited everyone in my organization to stop by to discuss anything and everything they would like. I keep them very informal, though I did send a calendar invite (which is set to “open” so it doesn’t actually block calendars), and I am there every week. Some weeks there is a long queue, and on others I may only talk to one or two people – but everyone knows they are welcome and we will talk about what THEY want to discuss.
- I schedule 2 to 3, 1-on-1 discussions a week with people who do not directly report to me but are in my organization. They are 30 minutes long, so I’m dedicating 60-90 minutes a week, and focused primarily on getting to know what is important to the person I am meeting with (both inside and outside of work). It takes me several months to rotate through the organization by doing this, but it provides an opportunity to create a safe space for more personal questions people may have.
- My leadership team holds frequent Ask Me Anything (AMA) video conference sessions with everyone in our global organization. We allow for live questions over voice and use tools to gather written questions (including anything anonymous). We have found that some people struggle with articulating questions they may have, and engaging in a broader audience often helps them put words to their thoughts or hear responses to similar questions that come from others.
The best organizations rely on leaders (whether formal or informal) at all levels that can share in solving these complex communication challenges. While it is the responsibility of those in formal leadership positions to ensure they have created organizational clarity, a greater understanding of the challenges they face in doing so creates the space for each of us to step up in helping them get there.
Cover photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova from Pexels