By instilling clarity, respect, candor, focus, and presence in their interactions, leaders can ensure their communications are positive and productive.
A few years ago, a firm I was working with lost a deal worth $10 million over five years. The decision had come down to two companies. The selling company’s team flew into Los Angeles, as did the buyer. They stayed at the Hilton and had breakfast together, then spent the day touring the proposed site.
That afternoon, as they were in the conference room going for the close, the president of the selling company got up and stood at the back of the room. He pulled out his phone and started checking email. I know his intention was not to be rude. He was an introvert and had a $200 million division to run. He figured he had his team there to care for the client.
You could feel the chill come over the buyer’s team. I don’t know if that incident was the primary reason, but we did not get the deal. In the negotiations, the buyer had said we were the better fit. But there are real costs and benefits to communication and leadership. The president had unwittingly communicated that his email was more important than this deal.
Although the financial stakes may not always be that high, a recently released report states that organizations lose $15,185 per year per employee due to poor communication. The authors state that the biggest contributor is using less-effective channels for communication—specifically, an overreliance on email. People tend to “chat” via email and depend on it to document a conversation. But it falls short as an ideal communication mode in many scenarios.
The Language of Leadership
As James Humes, a speechwriter for multiple presidents said, “The art of communication is the language of leadership.” In the work I have done with a variety of clients, I have come to recognize that there are five keys to communication. Consciously applying these can create powerful results.
These five “lenses” are clarity, respect, candor, focus, and presence.
Clarity. All too often, we communicate what is obvious to us without considering how the other person is interpreting it. As an example, nearly half of adult patients in the United States do not understand what their physician is telling them about their condition and treatment protocol.
In my workshops, I often tell people that my wife and I are looking for a new dog and ask for recommendations. In response, I get a wide variety of breeds. Then I share that I am allergic to dog dander and my wife wants something under 20 pounds. Now the request is a bit more specific and more likely to generate useful information.
How often does this happen in communication with our teams? In working with revenue cycle leaders, you can ask them, “What are your goals?” They are likely to say, “More cash.”
This is a lagging indicator. It happens after a whole host of other activities, including clean registration, preauthorization, well-documented and well-coded billing, and appropriate procedures to follow up on billing. Leaders should focus on discussing these more immediate goals and what is needed to achieve them.
Because we are human, we believe that the rest of the world views any situation as we do. It doesn’t. It is incumbent upon leaders to ensure their communications are understood.
We can improve our clarity in communications by slowing down—slowing down to think through the outcome we want, the steps to reach the outcome, any potential obstacles, and how to deal with those obstacles. By slowing down at the start to think through our communication, we can save time and energy on the back end.
Respect. We all strive to have a respectful workplace. Yet the news is rife with articles about workplace bullying, and there is an impact.
Most kids have probably heard the saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Yet a study in Israel examined neonatal teams in a diagnostic simulation involving an infant (no infants were harmed in the study). During one of the two simulations, participating clinicians heard a visiting expert make insulting remarks about the quality of medicine in Israel. The team that heard the insulting comments misdiagnosed the baby at a significantly higher rate.
A review of the video showed that after the insulting comments, teams quit collaborating and sharing. Even “the mild incivility common in medical practice can have profound, if not devastating, effects on patient care,” the authors wrote.
To reinforce respect, you can take three steps:
- Define and communicate your expectations for what a respectful workplace looks like.
- Be the role model of the behavior you want to see. This means being aware of ourselves. I once had a client who would sigh and roll his eyes after becoming tired of the conversation in a meeting. Guess who noticed?
- Call out inappropriate behavior as it occurs. Starbucks recently highlighted the need to respect diversity by implementing a one-day, companywide shutdown for training. They took a hit to their revenue to demonstrate to their staff and their market that this was something they take seriously, as part of their culture.
Candor. Almost everyone says they want more candor in the workplace, yet instilling it is hard because people fear rejection and don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings. But lack of candor can have an impact.
When Alan Mulally took over as CEO of Ford Motor Company, the company was losing billions of dollars. He began to meet on a regular basis with his team of direct reports. He wanted them to report key metrics on a dashboard. Green meant everything was great, yellow meant help was needed in that area, and red indicated that the division was in trouble on that metric.
After a few weeks during which everyone reported in as green, Mulally stopped the meeting and, as only a CEO can, said something to the effect of, “Something is wrong here. We are losing billions of dollars and you are telling me everything is OK. It is not. Either you are not reading it correctly or you are not telling the truth.”
During the next meeting, someone showed up with some yellow and a bit of red on their dashboard. Mulally congratulated and praised him, the team shared knowledge, and soon everyone was telling it as it really was. Because of the resulting turnaround, Ford did not need to be bailed out with other U.S. motor vehicle companies in 2008.
Leaders create candor by encouraging it—and by not shooting down ideas that they don’t agree with. Everyone gets heard.
A word of caution: Fostering candor can be challenging. Leaders have to be prepared to hear things that they may find uncomfortable.
Focus. Being clear about what you want and focusing on that, versus focusing merely on avoiding negative situations, will bring you more of the results you seek.
There is a difference between “Don’t ignore our customers” and “Greet each customer with a smile.” A part of our brain called the reticular activating system operates much like a GPS. When we hear, “Greet each customer with a smile,” that message is running in the background so that we do in fact say hello with a smile.
In contrast, this part of our brain does not process negatives. So in the above “Don’t ignore the customer,” it hears “ignore the customer”—and makes it more likely that is exactly what will happen.
Presence. This is how you “show up” as a leader. There is an obvious difference between leaders who show up late for meetings they called and are disorganized and flustered, and the leader who shows up early and prepared and calls everyone into the meeting with intention and purpose.
My friend Mark, an executive coach and former CEO, often calls a meeting to order with the phrase, “Thank you everyone for getting here. Let’s take a moment to do what we need to be [completely] here. Take a breath, put away your phone, and let’s be here.”
When we slow down to connect with our purpose and to connect our team to the purpose of the meeting, we get focused, we waste less time, and we get the results we want more often than not.
I often counsel my clients to answer three questions:
- What outcome do I want from this meeting?
- What do I want the meeting participants to feel (e.g., inspired, eager, determined, hopeful)?
- Who do I have to be to make that happen?
When they slow down to answer these questions, they report better outcomes.
Not Just a Soft Skill
The author Helio Fred Garcia writes, “Communication is a leadership discipline. Whatever else leadership may be, it is experienced publicly.”
Communication is more than a soft skill. It has hard consequences. It delivers real results. When we as leaders slow down to connect with our teams through our communication, be it one-to-one or one-to-many, it is the lever that can move the team.
John Gies is a consultant, author, speaker, and coach helping individuals and teams apply their communication skills. He can be reached at 720-535-1652, via email, or on LinkedIn.