Communicate to compete

Communication — or lack thereof — is constantly cited by managers and employees as a major problem at companies of all sizes.

Richard Boyatzis, professor of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and co-author of “Primal Leadership,” says that communication has become a catch-all diagnosis for three distinct problems.

“One aspect is that leadership is not keeping people informed,” says Boyatzis. “Communication in many companies is woefully inadequate. Leadership is caught up in their own world and is caught up in a foolish notion of secrecy about anything important. They think employees will get worried.

“Employees get more worried if they don’t know what is going on.”

Leaders have to tell employees what is going on, even if that news isn’t always positive.

“Employees need to be informed,” says Boyatzis. “When things aren’t going well, they need to be informed more. That’s the reason it was so important for (then) New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to be on TV every hour on 9/11. The bigger the crisis, the more people want a continuous stream of information.”

The second type of communication problem is a lack of credibility. Sometimes leaders are reluctant to tell the whole truth because they think employees won’t understand the issues or because they don’t want to look bad.

“Good leaders find ways to tell people the good and the bad about what’s happening without throwing the organization into cataclysm,” says Boyatzis. “Transparency is what people want. People are demanding transparent leaders. If people lie once, they’ll lie again.”

The third common communication problem area is presentation. Sometimes leaders are sharing information with employees, but are doing so in a boring way.

“People don’t say it’s boring, they say there is a communication problem,” says Boyatzis. “What they are hungering for is something more. They want to believe in what they are doing. They want to know it is a good thing to be working for the organization. They want to feel like what they do matters.

“You don’t have to be charismatic, you can be introverted. Employees want a vision, purpose and meaning to what they are doing. Meg Whitman, the CEO of eBay, talks about connectivity and the importance of the Internet. If you work for eBay, you feel like you are part of a social movement.”

If you are in a leadership position and need help with communication, Boyatzis says there are three ways to get assistance: Get an MBA, attend a training program or hire a coach.

But doing one of the three doesn’t guarantee a fix to your communication woes.

“Most of the money spent on training is wasted,” says Boyatzis. “The question then is, how do I pick a good leadership program or good MBA program. You can do it by status, but what you get from rankings is a message of elitism, not impact.”

Boyatzis recommends relying on research. If someone says he or she has a good program, ask for statistics that prove it. Do graduates of the program go on to great things?

“The problem is a lot more complicated than going to an executive development Yellow Pages, if there were such a thing,” says Boyatzis. “If you are buying a car, you spend time talking to people who have owned the car and you read reports and do research. Does the car spend more time in the shop than on the road? Will I be happy with the ride?

“You have to think in the same ways with a development program. You have to be consumer-savvy.”

How to reach: Richard Boyatzis, [email protected]