Complementing Actions: the Power of Communication
To be an effective leader requires many skills. These will be found in different proportions, depending on the sort of effective leader you are. Yet one skill area in which every effective leader – of whatever type – must excel, is communication.
“Done well, a speech can motivate, engage and, most importantly, inspire action,” says Dr Juan Carlos Pastor, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at IE Business School. However, writing for Financial Times | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance, he’s quick to stress that corporate leaders don’t need to reach the oratorical heights of a Martin Luther King Junior to influence their teams.
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Five Principles of Communication
Nonetheless, he argues, they should at least embrace five principles:
- Create trust through authenticity. Building trust, expressing moral conviction, telling the truth, and even admitting mistakes helps you develop the credibility that audiences seek. Moreover, it’s important to remember that your audience will gauge your authenticity from the tiniest and briefest of facial expressions. Although the comedian, Groucho Marx, once quipped, ‘Sincerity is the key to success. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made,’ it’s also true that your body language can understate your true commitment to a cause. As Jonathan Freeman, a professor of psychology at Goldsmith’s College, London, observes, a neutral face with a slightly upturned mouth and eyebrows suggest greater trustworthiness. So, says Pastor, check in a mirror how you come across before making that important speech.
- Share personal stories. People follow leaders with whom they feel they can identify on a personal level. When a would-be leader’s experiences exemplify values and characteristics such as survival, hope or success, these stories can inspire team members too. Pastor urges, “Don’t be afraid to share personal anecdotes that might help you to become a role model.
- Use rhetorical devices. Leadership researcher, John Antonakis, identifies 12 rhetorical devices that can elevate a speaker and his message. These include the use of metaphor, repetition, similes and analogies, rhetorical questions, statements that resonate with local sentiments, and the setting of hard goals. Antonakis estimates that using these devices can improve a speaker’s leadership ratings by some 60%.
- Help people to think differently. Communicators must inspire their listeners to action. This can be done by helping them define a problem in new ways and then propose alternative solutions. Pastor points out that, in his 1997 speech at Macworld Boston, the late Steve Jobs urged Apple employees not to focus on beating Microsoft but on making Apple great on its own terms. By reframing Apple’s challenge, he paved the way for the company’s famous turnaround.
- Deploy cues to action. In 1965, psychologist Howard Leventhal, explored ways to convince Yale university students to get a tetanus vaccine from the local health care centre. He prepared two booklets. One explained the dangers of tetanus, including graphic details and pictures. The other set out the benefits while toning down the dangers. Neither booklet achieved the desired result.
So, on a map of the campus, Leventhal circled the health care centre location. Immediately, the vaccination rate rose by one third. The new map had included a cue to action. “Effective leaders need to add similar, simple cues to jump-start action,” says Pastor.
How to Improve your Skills
The first step to improving anything about yourself, including your communication skills, is to take what you already do to the highest level. Ten ways to help you do this are:
- Convince yourself that, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
- Become absorbed in it. Learn to care about every small improvement or new idea.
- Seek and savour positive feedback. Don’t let negative comments distract you from what you did right. If no-one else praises you, look back at the high points. Decide what makes them good – and how you can achieve them more often.
- Treat setbacks as learning experiences. Don’t waste time and energy denying defeat. Discuss the implications with colleagues. Limit the damage; then learn from the events that led to it.
- Don’t waste time complaining. Focus on what you can do to solve a problem and prevent it recurring.
- Assess the chances of a negative outcome and how bad it could be. Others probably won’t notice, so long as you’ve avoided obvious mistakes.
- Don’t see early problems as signs of failure. These are merely a chance to rectify early errors and make corrections – not a signal to give up.
- Accept some pain and deferred gratification. Success is often painful, lonely and a hard life – but you’ll have achieved a standard that leaves the rest behind.
- Look like a success, even if you don’t feel like one. What others see shapes their expectation of what they’ll get – and they’re the ones who’ll feel awkward once you do things that show that they under-rated you.
- Get others to promote you. We tend not to like people who tell us how good they are – but we tend to believe it when others praise these people. So, get other people to recommend you; promote your knowledge, skills and character, and so on.
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