Recently I was invited to a software company to help figure out why employees were so disgruntled. Bright, creative and with an entrepreneurial spirit, this business should have been moving quickly into the future. Instead, it was mired, confused and lost. It wasn’t because the founder didn’t have a vision. She did. But as I interviewed her and her employees the answer became obvious to me. All she had was vision and she wasn’t communicating it to the employees so that it would translate into action.
She didn’t communicate the vision to her employees in a way that enabled them to share the vision. They didn’t have an opportunity to provide input into the vision or share their aspirations. Visions work best when people feel ownership in the direction and outcome of the organization. But it wasn’t the only problem at this company.
Sometimes our strengths — what we do best — are not the best behaviors to bring forth the desired outcome in particular situations; they may, in fact, impede successful outcomes. In such instances, a leader’s personal strength can actually be a weakness for the organization.
The strength of the owner of the company above was determination. But her strength translated into a weakness in communication skills, which then impacted implementation of her vision. She would ramble on endlessly about opportunities but failed to share specifics such as prioritizing. Her communications left the employees lost and confused. By the time management figured out a direction in which to go, she would go off in another direction, leaving people stymied. Why bother doing anything when tomorrow the direction would change?
Effective leaders provide meaning and purpose in a given situation. They influence people to get on board and move in the same direction. Leaders are also agents of change, helping others decrease their level of resistance to change. Great leadership creates momentum, enabling others to achieve more than before. It opens people up to possibilities, aligns them with others and helps them commit to goals and initiatives.
Findings in leadership effectiveness study
We conducted a study of the partnering behaviors and effectiveness of 22 individuals deemed leaders in their respective workplaces. Partnering — two or more people working together to accomplish a goal or task while building trust and a mutually beneficial relationship — is an essential leadership skill. In the study, peers, superiors and subordinates rated each leader’s effectiveness and identified strengths and weaknesses.
The study clearly revealed that three leadership strengths — expertise, determination and people skills — often translate to poor communication and thus lead to organizational weaknesses. Given the fact that the role of a leader is to inspire confidence, influence others as to the direction to pursue in initiatives and motivate others to achieve goals, strength in communication is essential to leadership success.
Strength – expertise. Leaders whose strength lies in expertise have dominant traits. They are confident and competitive and the ability to overcome obstacles. Although this type of leader possesses knowledge that is highly valuable to an organization and essential in developing expertise in team members, the leader’s manner of communication can cause people not to follow the influence of the leader.
Our study found that the leaders whose strength was expertise shared the following communication weaknesses:
- Reluctance to share views in discussion groups or with team members
- Does not listen to team members
- Often too aggressive and overbearing in communicating with team members
- Communications are not frequent enough
- Communications are not well structured
- Not good at giving clear directions
- Not good at giving feedback
- Does not praise team members or employees
Strength – determination. A leader such as the company owner mentioned earlier in this article, whose strength is determination, has a can-do attitude and, on a personal level, consistently delivers results. But these strengths are a hindrance in leading others because these types of leaders tend to rely on themselves rather than taking an inclusive, collaborative approach.
For leaders in our study whose strength was determination, the study revealed the following communication weaknesses:
- Communicates primarily only what is required
- Talks enthusiastically; tends to be over-exuberant and not calm
- Does not talk in a manner that builds relationships; lacks a collaborative, inclusive style of communicating
- Communication is not open enough to reveal key issues
- Does not seek others’ opinions; does not take time to listen
- Communications can be adversarial
- Not accepting of others’ efforts when their achievements don’t meet expectations
- Lacks tolerance and patience
Strength – people skills. The dominant traits of a leader whose area of strength is people skills include a friendly approach, concern for others’ views, and the ability to get along well with everyone. While employees and teams tend to want to follow a leader who is personable, they still need a leader who will provide guidance by setting expectations and achieving goals as well as working through conflict and change.
Our study found that the leaders whose strength was people skills shared the following communication weaknesses:
- Communications are delivered in a caring manner but often lack key information
- Not good at giving pointers to others
- Not good at providing honest feedback
- Hesitant to rock the boat and tends to avoid conflict
- Does not show confidence when delivering messages
- Not willing to push others to get a job done
- Not forceful in knocking down barriers
- Hesitant about communicating differing opinions; often prefers to just go along with the others on a team
- Not succinct
The areas of strength the 22 leaders in this study naturally possess cause them to naturally communicate in a manner that decreases momentum, does not help others open up to possibilities, causes them to work more as individuals than aligned team members and does not help them understand enough about goals and initiatives to commit to them.
More than ever before, today’s leaders need to guide others in new directions, especially toward innovation that creates competitive advantages. In addition to first building trust, highly effective communication skills are a prerequisite for leading others in new directions. Effective leaders are able to adapt and are not locked in to a communication approach or style based on a dominant trait.
The good news for leaders who realize their personal strength is actually a communication weakness that will hinder innovation and adapting to change is leadership and communication skills are learned behavior and there are programs for helping leaders improve those behaviors.
Stephen M. Dent, founder and CEO of Partnership Continuum, Inc., is a pioneer in Partnering Intelligence theory, research and application. He has over 20 years’ experience helping companies improve performance through partnering methods. He has authored three books on partnering and is a sought‐after business consultant and keynote speaker. Partnership Continuum offers several self-paced solutions for developing highly effective communication skills as well as improving other leadership and partnering capabilities. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.