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Joseph Gefroh

Team Lead and Software Engineer
Seattle, Washington

How to communicate effectively as a leader

Tips on how to avoid dysfunction in your team

Many first-time leaders see their teams devolve into chaos and their effectiveness reduced by unnecessary friction.

Because of their lack of experience, they resort to large, sweeping changes in their attempts to improve the effectiveness of their organizations and fulfill their vision.

These herculean efforts fail over and over, while the real solution sits ignored in front of them: communicate better.

Blindspots

Why are so many otherwise educated, talented people oblivious to this?

It’s simple — leaders don’t see bad communication so they simply conclude it isn’t happening.

A leader’s position enables them to see a longer-term vision and the high-level workings of their organization. By virtue of being a leader, they have a tremendous amount of visibility into the rest of the organization.

Leaders forget that this visibility is a privilege of their position, and that their advantageous viewpoint simply isn’t shared by others in the organization. They incorrectly assume those at levels lower than they are have the same vantage pointthey do.

The more they see the more they don’t see. It’s an ironic blindspot caused by their position.

The more they see the more they don’t see.

Think about all the times you’ve heard people describe their leaders as being “out of touch” with their teams, not aware of the “ground truth”, or being described as “delusional”. It’s a sentiment shared across many teams and organizations throughout many industries.

How does it happen?

Leaders don’t intentionally become unaware of the inner-workings of their teams. They don’t just wake up one day and tell themselves “I’m going to be out of touch with the team I lead.” It creeps up on them, unrecognized.

It takes truly pro-active leadership to recognize and avoid this blindspot.

You’re here because you recognize there’s a problem

It’s not all doom and gloom — you’ve overcome the first hurdle: recognizing there’s a problem. Luckily, as a leader you are in an excellent position to resolve the communication issues that plague your organization.

Understand the realities of communication

You’re always delivering a message

Like I’ve said in the past, leaders are always on stage. Every word you say, every interaction you have, every facial expression you make is going to be scrutinized and replayed in people’s minds.

People look to their leaders for their reactions — their approval and disapproval — and modify their behavior based on these reactions.

Be cognizant of this fact and ensure that you are always delivering the message you want to deliver. You are never off-air.

You can leverage differences in how you normally communicate to emphasize a specific message. For example, if you are known to always be soft-spoken, people will definitely remember if you yell and get angry one day.

Volatile leaders with inconsistent behaviors will deliver inconsistent messages — adding to unneeded friction and chaos. Stable leaders reinforce their teams by delivering consistent messaging through every action, only deviating on rare occasions to emphasize a point.

Your communication gets distorted, fast.

It doesn’t matter what medium you use — any communication you send will be distorted, almost immediately.

Whether it be Slack, in-person, email, memos, or posters on a wall, your message will not be received with 100% accuracy.

There’s just too many factors in play — your tone of voice, the moods of the people communicating, the words you used, your facial expressions, body language, your history with the person you’re communicating with, etc.

That’s just communicating with one person — imagine the thousands of communications that happen between just as many people every day.

As your communication slowly makes its way through your organization, various factors will cause it to become muddied down until it no longer even resembles the original intent or message.

Like a large game of telephone, the meaning of any message becomes distorted for various reasons, whether through well-intentioned mistakes or malicious actors driven by self-interest.

By the time it reaches the people that really need to hear the truth, it may be the complete opposite of what you intended.

Understanding and acknowledging this dilution of communication is critical.

Avoid the dilution

How do you prevent your message from being diluted? Repeat it, repeat it repeat it, over and over and over.

Repeating yourself is important

It’s the most effective way to cut through the noise-to-signal ratio.

People receive a lot of communications throughout the day. Just imagine all of the emails, chat messages, advertisements, in-person chats, etc. that go on in any given work day. There’s too much to focus on, so messages get lost in the shuffle of the day-to-day.

The only messages that will get through are communications that the receivers deem important — the ones they can’t ignore. A leader repeating themselves will act as an amplifier- a signal that this communication is worth paying more attention to.

People need reminders. If they see a message come up time and time again, they’ll take notice of it. They’re more likely to remember repeated messages.

Repeating messages may seem like over-communication, but it helps clarify things and reduce mismatched assumptions.

Develop memorable phrases and memes

They may seem like dopey or insincere platitudes at first, but you’ll be surprised how quickly they become adopted as mantras and guiding principles.

These phrases will become adopted by your team and others and become a part of their everyday vocabulary. The repetition then begins to occur from other sources, further strengthening the message.

Use multiple mediums

If you talk about something in-person to someone else, enforce the idea in a follow-up email repeating the same information.

Have other people repeat their understanding of a message you sent them, explicitly asking them to rephrase or explain it to someone else. If they don’t align, you’ve found an opportunity to clarify a misunderstanding.

Be precise

Misunderstandings often arise due to mismatched assumptions between the the sender of a message and the recipient. When there’s a lack of information, people will fill in the blanks with their own interpretation, experience, and biases. Since everyone is different, it’s a quick path to miscommunication.

You can do a lot to avoid this by being specific in the language and words you use. Be specific. General language opens up too much room for possibility and assumptions.

For example, don’t just say a poor purchasing decision was a “bad call”. Say “it was an unwise decision to purchase this because it didn’t factor in our available budget”.

The first phrasing opens up many interpretations on why it was a bad call, whereas the second narrows down to a very specific reason that can be avoided in the future due to its actionable nature.

Constant positivity is not a positive

Don’t be afraid to give bad news

Sometimes the message you are delivering is going to disappoint people. Sometimes it’s difficult for you to even broach the subject.

Weak leaders avoid these difficulties by shying away from the topics, hoping the issue resolves itself. They try their best to avoid the problem, believing that any negative thinking or thought will harm the company.

Instead of delivering the bad news directly, leaders may try to be a people-pleaser, downplaying the negative aspects of the message and ultimately failing to deliver it outright.

That’s a mistake: a problem doesn’t go away just because you don’t address it. Sometimes the most positive thing you can do is addressing the negative directly.

Silence is not golden

Silence is a message in and of itself, and leads to miscommunication because people will fill in the gaps and play telephone. I’m sure you’ve been a part of the rumor mill, wondering what potential changes could mean — a layoff? A re-org? These rumor mills are damaging to organizational effectiveness.

An absence of explicit, clear messages is a breeding ground for dysfunctional communication.

You can’t stop the rumor mill by forbidding people to speak about it. You stop it by addressing the issues being discussed head on as quickly as possible.

Explicitly and repetitively communicate what you intend to communicate. If something happens, address it as immediately as possible before the rumor mill starts.

The more time passes, the more the dysfunction festers and has a chance to grow.

Don’t make sandwiches

A common technique to deliver criticism that is promoted by many management blogs and other sources is known as the “sandwich technique”.

In this technique, you couch negative feedback by first providing positive feedback, delivering the negative feedback, and then ending with the positive feedback. This is intended to soften the blow and make the negative feedback pill easier to swallow.

Don’t do this.

Contradictory messages will be misinterpreted. It divides the focus of the receiver and distracts from the ultimate intent message.

Contradictory messages will be misinterpreted. It divides the focus of the receiver and distracts from the ultimate intent message.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people surprised that they were being fired — if only they had known about their poor performance earlier!

The problem was that many times they were told about their poor performance, but from inexperienced managers using the sandwich technique. What they thought wasn’t that big of a deal turned out to be the final nail in the coffin.

People will focus on the positive. After all, the negative feedback must not be that important since there was more positive feedback!

The sandwich technique also misuses an important aspect of people’s memory — they’re more likely to remember the first message as well as the most recent message they’ve received. Since the negative feedback is in the middle, people are psychologically prone to not remember it as much as the complimentary messages. It’s just how our brains are wired.

Be direct, clear, concise, and consistent. Don’t make sandwiches.

Breaking down communication barriers

Even if you think you have great rapport with someone, you’ll always be receiving some form of filtered viewpoint designed with your authority in mind.

It’s hard enough talking to leaders and people in positions of authority. Don’t make it harder artificially.

Here’s some things you can do to reduce the friction others may feel when communicating with you.

Institute an open door policy

Publicly and privately state that you want people approaching you and giving you unsolicited feedback or dropping in for a chat.

Make sure you are approachable. Any barrier you put is just one more roadblock to communicating with you.

Recognize your open door policy is ineffective

Already instituted an open door policy? Great — it probably won’t work.

Many people simply won’t come up to you for various reasons — shyness, busyness, etc. Arrange a specific time yourself to hear people’s thoughts and opinions in addition to your open-door policy.

You can’t be passive about promoting communication — open door policies are literally the least you can do.

Remove physical barriers

Your office desk is the second biggest barrier to effective communication next to a closed door.

The typical office layout involves a desk in the middle of the office, with a chair close to the doorway for guests and the office owner’s chair in a seat of power between the wall and the desk.

The problem with this layout is that it creates a very real physical barrier between you and the person you are communicating with. This physical barrier is enhanced by any other item on your desk — typically a monitor.

Break down the barrier — position your desk against the wall so that any guest that enters your office to talk is sitting in front of you with no barriers in-between.

Remove those headphones, move that coffee mug to the side.

Get out of the office

Another person’s office is viewed as hostile territory. Human beings have a psychological aversion to crossing that door frame — the threshold between the outside of the office and the inside — the safe area and the lion’s den.

In an office the lines of authority are clearly defined and communication flows through that lens.

You’re unlikely to get effective communication within it.

The solution? Get out of your office. Talk to people in their office. Bring people to coffee shops. Grab lunch.

Reach out to people directly

If you want to hear from someone, ask them explicitly what their thoughts are.

Ask them regularly. Ask them through different mediums — in person, over chat, email, etc.

People have different comfort levels communicating through different mediums — find the one that works the best for the person you are communicating with.

Build rapport

You’re more likely to receive honest feedback and ensure solid communication if people feel comfortable and safe communicating with you. You can’t build that sense of safety or camaraderie with communication limited to work tasks.

Ask people about their day, how their work is going, or what they did that weekend. Build relationships with people, even if they aren’t even in your department.

Avoid silos

You can see these environments start to form — groups begin to silo themselves or cut off visibility and communication in the name of privacy, security, or some other reason.

Perhaps they begin to place certain information on a “need-to-know” basis, or suddenly make their meeting notes private. Maybe they stop inviting non-group members to lunch.

Many times there’s a valid reason to do so — especially in areas where a breach in privacy can be a massive issue (eg. HR, medical, defense, etc.) or a loss of focus can result in decreased productivity (eg. training, junior employees, highly complex endeavors, etc.).

However, many other times these silos are created with no other reason than to simply create an in-group, exercise authority, or develop miniature empires to stroke egos.

Over times, these silos being to operate independently, contributing to a dysfunctional communication environment that makes delivering accurate messages and operating effectively much more difficult.

Effective communication is hard, but not impossible. Leaders can make small changes in their behavior and the environment that lead to compound results down the road.

Read this article and more on my Medium Blog.