Early in my career, I had a boss who was a micro-manager. Really, it might be better to call him a “nano-manager,” with the way he did things. I mean, this guy somehow kept up with every single little detail of everything that was going on in his operation, and no triviality was too small for him to intervene over and put everyone in their place. This was just a couple years after Bill Gates predicted that there would be “a computer on every desk and in every home,” but we weren’t there yet; I can only imagine the level of megalomania this boss would have felt with the internet at his fingertips. Luckily, we were still stuffing papers in physical mailboxes at that time, and I remember checking my mailbox every morning and breathing a sigh of relief if I didn’t see a yellow sheet in there. You see, the boss was the only one with a yellow pad, and a yellow sheet in your mailbox meant you had screwed up and had to appear before the “Grand Czar of Everything” and answer for your insufficiencies. If there was no yellow sheet, you knew you were doing alright. So, at that time, no communication from the boss was always good news.
About 20 years later, I found myself working for another boss who was a man of few words…or emails…or any other form of communication. What he was thinking was an ongoing mystery that was routinely analyzed and discussed in small groups. His every gesture was observed and interpreted by coworkers acting as impromptu augurs in desperate attempts to piece together an plausible narrative of what he thought was going well and what he thought needed improvement. Of course, we would always found out what he really thought when we heard his second- or third-hand indirect negative feedback several weeks later. In his case, no news always felt like the calm before the storm, rather than a relief. You could be going about your merry way, doing what you thought was right, only to find out weeks or months later, that he didn’t like what was going on and rather than talking to you about it, he was quietly undermining your effort and letting others know he didn’t support what was going on.
With the micro-manager you never had to guess where you stood because you knew if he were the least bit displeased, you would hear about it immediately. He had his quirks. His micro-management style and overbearing tendency to latch on to something and humiliate people in front of their peers was something we could all do without, but at least we knew where we stood. With the non-communicator, the whole organization was always walking on eggshells or navigating a minefield, wondering what the deafening silence meant in terms of what was to come. To be clear, neither of these guys were my idea of a great boss, or even a good one. I learned a lot about what not to do as a leader from both of them, but if I had my choice of working for either of them again, I would pick the poor communicator over the non-communicator any day of the week.
Over the years, as I have led organizations and worked as an internal and external consultant, I have seen these archetypes on numerous occasions and it’s clear to me that in the long run, the toxicity that lack of communication breeds in organizations is always far more damaging than any problems that poor communication may cause. The same is also true in personal relationships, and really any interaction that requires communication between one or more parties. Let’s look at some specific downsides to lack of communication compared to just poor communication.
When there is lack of communication:
· We assume the worst. In the absence of information and feedback, we make up our own stories, and they are usually disempowering as we assume the worst so that we can prepare ourselves for it. When you walk out of a presentation that you just delivered and your boss walks by you and gives you no indication of whether it went well or not, your first assumption is not going to be that you hit it out of the park!
· The spirit of community is broken. People begin to feel like others don’t have their back. We all want to belong, and lack of communication gives us the feeling that we don’t exist in the eyes of the leader and community and we’re on our own. This is a perfect recipe for passive and active disengagement and the formation of silos that are toxic to productivity and fulfillment.
· Communication begins to only flow through formal channels, like the annual performance feedback or the monthly project meeting, and corrective action is taken far too late to be effective.
· People begin to lose respect for their leaders. The more you respect someone, the more painful and insulting it is to be “ghosted” by them. So, as a matter of preserving our own sanity, we begin to at least try to convince ourselves that the person’s opinion doesn’t matter. This is exactly how I, and several others, endured my non-communicator boss, by the way, and it is not something that any leader consciously wants to happen to them.
Why do leaders fail to communicate?
· Lack of courage – The aforementioned non-communicator personified this perfectly because even though he simply didn’t have the courage to look people in the eye and give them straight feedback. Interestingly enough, he had a reputation for being really tough, but you didn’t need a PhD in psychology to know that behind the tough façade, there was an insecure person who had not dealt with his own issues. Recommended Action: Start with your own transformation. Be intentional about discovering your own insecurities and lack of confidence that prevents you from being a better communicator. Engage an accountability partner, preferably someone who is able and willing to coach you on a going basis as you transform yourself into the person you need to be to be a better communicator.
· Lack of skill – Sometimes we are not confident that we have the skills to deliver bad news or handle conflict properly and therefore shy away from it. Recommended Action: If your concern is that you are not able to handle conflict or deliver bad news effectively, a good place to start is the 5 steps I outline in the chapter titled, “How to Have the Conversation You Have Been Avoiding,” in The Transformative Leader. You can also check out this podcast episode to learn more.
· Lack of respect – Whether the non-communicator is a dictator who doesn’t care enough about people to communicate with them, or the person professes to care so much about people that they don’t want to hurt their feelings, lack of communication is a sign of disrespect for the other person(s) in the relationship. Recommended Action: Ask for feedback about your communication approach and style, anonymously if you have to. Find out how you are perceived relative to communication effectiveness, and take the necessary steps to be able to communicate in a way that is respectful of others’ capabilities and maturity.
Now, you may be wondering what to do if you aren’t the boss, but you find yourself at the mercy of a boss that is a non-communicator. There are no quick and easy solutions, unfortunately. The best suggestion I have is to not let them get away with not giving you the information and feedback you need to do your job. Unless you have truly reached the point where you are ready to write them off completely and get your work done in spite of them, proactively ask for feedback on a regular basis, and don’t do it as a general inquiry. Ask about the person’s opinion about specific work that you are doing. Ask them for 1-2 suggestions on what you could have done better. Thank them for providing specific, actionable feedback and indicate that this will help you find areas you can improve and serve the organization better.
After doing this for long enough, hopefully the non-communicator will get the message that communication isn’t as hard or pointless as they think it is, and slowly they should get used to providing useful feedback on their own. Of course, even if that isn’t the case, as long as you are persistent in pursuing communication directly for them, and taking responsibility for making up for their lack of communication, you are developing yourself into become a leader who will be better off for having had the experience.
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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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