Dean and I often sit down with leaders who want their team to communicate better. They want them to:
- Listen more frequently and more actively
- Speak more completely and more concisely
- Be more collaborative and mutually supportive
- Ask more questions and be more open to constructive feedback
They want all this as their team members interact with each other, with co-workers outside of the team, and (most commonly) with prospects and clients.
In itself, this is all great. All of this would indeed make their team better, especially if the leaders themselves are already doing all of these things themselves.
But complications appear when leaders don’t exhibit these communication traits themselves. We can train the skills into the team and we can coach them to handle specific challenges, but every time those team members are on the receiving end of a problematic interaction, every time they witness a dysfunctional presentation, the skills we are building get eroded.
We know that communication patterns flow downward inside of organizations. That is, team members tend to emulate the communication pattern of whoever they report to. It’s a natural, organic process. (And it’s why leadership communication is so important. If the culture of an organization is off-kilter, the problem can almost certainly be sourced in the communications patterns of someone somewhere in the C-suite.)
This is why we always encourage leaders to include themselves in the training they want for their team members. Even those who are already good communicators and presenters learn new techniques and tools. But more importantly, they learn to use the same language and processes that their team members are learning, so that they can consciously strengthen those patterns in two ways:
- They can demonstrate good communication. When leaders interact with clients or present to them, they can bring team members to observe what they do and how they do it. And they can take questions in the debrief afterwards. Even better, they can invite feedback and criticism, so they can demonstrate the process of receiving that input in a healthy and constructive way.
- They can role-model good communication. Anything leaders ask their team members to do, they should be willing and able to do themselves. If they want team members to ask good questions to truly understand the problems that co-workers, prospects and clients face, they should sit down with their team members individually, and ask those good questions themselves. If they want team members to empathize, they themselves need to be able to empathize . If they want team members to be able to make suggestions that could improve other people’s situations, they need to be able to do that with their own team members.
We’ve found there are some circumstances where it’s simply inappropriate for leaders to be in the same workshops as their team members. Sometimes this mix throws off the balance of the room, causing team members to feel inhibited from talking about their weaknesses, and often accidentally steering the content of the sessions.
In these cases, we recommend putting leadership together into their own groups and building skills f0r them that are parallel to the skills being built in their team members:
- If team members are learning how to present to prospects, leaders should be learning how to present to the team.
- If team members are learning how to lead business development conversations with leads, leadership should be learning how to lead conversations about business development with team members.
- If team members are learning how to problem-solve with clients, leaders should be learning how to problem-solve with team members.
Regardless, the important thing is that these leaders are exhibiting the same patterns that have been taught to team members, and that dots have been connected throughout the team to both external and internal interactions and presentations. When these two things have been done, the healthy and positive communication patterns get continually reinforced throughout the team, and skills not only sustain over time, but naturally continue to improve with good practice.
What do you think of all this? Are you a team leader or a team member? What has been your experience as a communicator in a team? Share your thoughts below!