Can leaders do anything right? A lot of our work over the last few years – especially on Mobilizing the Workforce and Building a Change-Ready Organization – has challenged conventional wisdom around leadership communication:
- Be transparent? Insufficient.
- Build buy-in? Misses the mark in a high-change environment.
- Give clear direction? May actually do more harm than good.
But this doesn’t mean that leaders don’t matter or can’t communicate in ways that motivate employees and boost their productivity. It’s just that we need leaders to play a different role – to empower:
- Seek employee feedback and input. I don’t mean a “suggestion box,” which puts the burden to act back onto the leader. Empowering leaders ask employees questions that they can answer to take action within the scope of their day-to-day work.
- Coach, don’t tell. Empowering leaders – when possible – guide staff to figure out what to do rather than tell them what to do.
- Provide opportunities to experiment. Empowering leaders point out learning opportunities and help staff seize them and other employees share in what is learned.
- Connect employees to helpful people and tools. Empowering leaders’ broad reach within the organization lets them make staff more productive by making smarter connections.
This sounds great on paper – to most leaders, too – but is easier said than done. Leaders may fear losing control (confusing empowerment with delegation) or not appearing to lead (confusing leadership with commanding). We’ve seen progressive communicators partner with HR to surface these objections and help leaders overcome them. For an example, see what GlaxoSmithKline did.
I’ve experienced some of these concerns first hand. At an earlier stage in my career, for example, I was a consultant counseling clients through post-merger integration. Employees of both companies wanted answers to questions like whether there would be layoffs, consolidation of facilities, changes to IT systems, and changes to job responsibilities. Following supposed change management best practice, I helped client executives be transparent about what they knew and how they were going to figure out – and communicate – what they didn’t yet know. In retrospect, even better would have been to create opportunities for staff to learn about the other company: understand where their counterparts work, what they do, and how they do it. This may have prompted earlier adoption of “best of both” solutions, and at a minimum would have provided better context for the changes to come.
I’d be very interested in hearing your reflections – either examples where you’ve helped leaders take a more empowering approach or situations you now realize could have been handled better.
CEC members can access our updated topic center on coaching senior leaders here:
CEC Related Resources:
- Leadership Coaching Topic Center
- Webinar: Leadership Communication that Empowers: GSK CPSE’s Empowerment Workshop for Leaders
- Line Manager Communications Topic Center
- Dialogue Workshop for Leaders
CEC Related Blog Posts: