The 90/10 Rule of Effective Communication and Leadership

Photo by Thomas Evans on  Unsplash

Photo by Thomas Evans on Unsplash

Each one of us has our own primary or preferred style of communication, and this is something that affects how we show up in pretty much every area of our lives. This is obviously the case in how we speak, write, or behave towards others, but how we occur to ourselves is also subtly influenced by our preferred style of communication. Whether this primary style is rooted in our temperament and natural inclination to be and show up a certain way, or whether it is reinforced and consciously cultivated by the successes we have had using it, we are attached to our preferred style, for better or worse. In the absence of intentional effort to be and show up differently, our default tendencies will always take us back to our familiar mode of operation, even if it may not be the most effective way of conveying our message. This is an important distinction in general, but it is one that it is especially pertinent for speakers to understand and put into action.

The problem is that, as much as we may be attached to it, our primary style is not always effective in every circumstance. All too often, we stick to our familiar way of communicating, the way that we are most comfortable with rather than the way that actually suits the needs of those we are communicating with, and as a result, we end up compromising the outcomes that we are trying to accomplish. As Stephen R. Covey has noted, “He who is good with the hammer sees everything as a nail!” We all have the tendency to approach situations based on our past experiences, and when what we’re doing stops working in a certain situation, instead of trying a different tactic, we usually do more of it, do it louder, and do it more forcefully. And if, as has been said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then pretty much all of us have lost at least a few of our marbles.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of being like a hammer that can only hit nails, we could be like something closer to a Swiss army knife or a multi-tool, adapting our style of communication and leadership to each situation on the fly? We all agree that would be great, but why is it that many of us don’t practice this kind of flexibility? The root cause often has to do with us either not being aware that we are in a kind of auto-pilot mode when it comes to communication. And, even when we become aware of that fact, many of us are often unwilling to shift our approach to suit the situation, reasoning that we shouldn’t have to.

As I have mentioned a few times, when it comes to being an effective leader, or influencer of any kind, the Platinum Rule applies more appropriately than the Golden Rule. The Platinum Rule, for those that need a reminder, goes something like, “Do unto others as they would like to be done unto them.” We might use the variant here that goes, “Speak unto others as they would like to be spoken unto,” but the underlying fact remains the same. And the fact is, as an influencer, if the audience is not getting your message, it is never their problem. As a speaker or leader, it is your responsibility to communicate in such a way that your message lands. It is not their responsibility as an audience to adapt their style of listening to your style of speaking; it is always your responsibility to match your style of communication to your audience’s style of listening.

Now, if you aren’t aware or don’t believe that you have an “auto-pilot” mode of communication, this post is not going to convince you. What this post will do is provide a few suggestions on how you might mitigate the downsides of falling into your regular patterns when interacting with others. If you’re worried that you will have to fundamentally change who you are and how you communicate to be more effective in dealing with challenges that you have not had success with in the past, then I have great news for you. In 90% of the situations you encounter, you don’t have to change who you are and how you approach leadership! You can be yourself and you can be effective, as long as you are willing to shift your approach and style just 10% of the time! This is what I call the 90/10 rule of effective leadership.

I have worked with all kinds of very effective leaders in the past 30+ years and I can tell you they come in all shapes and forms. Some of them have been extroverts and some introverts, some have been talkative and some more reserved. Some have been type A personalities and some more laid back and hands off, some have been strict and some have been gentle and sensitive, etc. The list goes on and on. What they all had in common, however, is that they had figured out how to capitalize on their strengths and keep their shortcomings from sabotaging their effectiveness. They had gotten comfortable in their own skin and realized that, when they had the courage and determination to stretch themselves and adopt a different style than the one they are comfortable with 10% of the time, they got to enjoy the positive aspects of being who they were naturally the other 90% of the time. More than that, they understood that going against type just 10% of the time had a catalyzing effect on the rest of their leadership activities, because it was something people weren’t expecting and it kept them on their toes.

For instance, there is nothing wrong with being gentle and sensitive in how you communicate bad news or corrective feedback, as long as you recognize that, in some instances, you simply must deliver a stern message in a way that is out of character for you, in order to get through to the person. There is nothing wrong with listening more than speaking as long as you realize, that every now and then, you must speak up and be heard loud and clear. I could go on and on about how our weaknesses are often over-extensions of our strengths, but the ancient Greeks probably said it better. We know from them that a vice is merely any virtue that has been applied too deficiently, too excessively, or applied in the wrong place at the wrong time. By consciously making an effort to switch it up 10% of the time, you guard yourself against over-extending your strength in a way that spoils it for you and renders you ineffective.

To go on a small tangent, I’d like to provide a few examples to really drive the point home. While changing things up just 10% of the time might seem pointless, consider a few practical situations where we have found this to be highly effective. In a vaccine for instance, you are receiving some biologically inactive fluid along with an extremely small amount of viruses or bacteria, much less than 10%, and it results in you becoming immune to a disease that would have killed people in the past. By the same token, it only takes a few virus or bacteria particles to make your whole body sick, so we know that small things can make a huge difference. This applies in social settings too, for instance, when interacting with people whose language is different from your own. While attempting to speak a foreign language 100% of the time would be pretty ineffective and probably frustrating for both you and your listeners, just making the good faith gesture of attempting a few broken phrases would show them that you care enough to move out of your comfort zone for their sake, and would endear you to your audience from that point forward.  Lastly, let’s consider spices, since variety is the spice of life. If any of you have ever eaten Thai food, you will have encountered these little cute chili peppers. If you don’t think 10% can make a difference, try eating just half of one of those! They are so small, but you only need the tiniest slice of one, and it will light your insides up! Even in Iran, we have a saying that goes, “The smaller the chili, the hotter it burns.”  

This same principle applies to so many aspects of our performance. One area in which I recently coached a client was public speaking. This client’s concern was that he was not necessarily a natural in speaking off-the-cuff or ad-libbing and he was concerned that he wasn’t going to do well in delivering his part of the strategy deployment session that the leadership team was conducting. He felt he would seem too scripted or stiff in his delivery. What I suggested to him was that he could stand behind the podium and refer to his prepared talking points 90% of the time, but that in the other 10%, he supplement certain parts of his talk with a few comments from the heart. I asked him to pick a few places in his talk where he was comfortable ad-libbing and suggested that he pause during those times and go off script just a little. In other words, I told him, “Don’t try to deliver your talk like someone who is just a natural at walking around on stage and speaking from memory, but rather do it your way 90% of the time, and design in the other 10% such that it gives the audience the feel of having received an authentic message.” I’m happy to report that when the strategy deployment session was over, this individual received the highest marks from his peers and others as the best presenter at the event!

The pre-requisite to applying the 90/10 rule is to start with knowing your default mode and how it works for you and where it hinders your effectiveness. The best tool that I have encountered to gain deep insight on one’s own style and figure out how to best interact with others who have a different style than your own in DiSC ®. I have facilitated the DiSC ® assessment sessions with countless groups over the years and the amount of insight that the participants get and how it affects them has been nothing short of amazing.

I hope you find the 90/10 rule be useful in becoming a more effective speaker or leader. I would love to hear examples of where you have applied this principle, or where you might apply it, down in the comments below. And, if you are interested in taking the DiSC ® assessment, please visit our store where they are available for sale.


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About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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