“Say something, and it may end your career. Don’t say something, and it may end your career.”
In a time where racial tensions are high, and everyone is on edge due to a global pandemic, communication remains a relevant competency to master.
Discussing the importance of communication is not new or groundbreaking. The research consistently indicates poor communication leads to conflict, division and other common organizational problems. Leaders spend an enormous amount of time in various types of interpersonal situations. There is too much “lip service” regarding communication and not enough intentional practice. In 2020, a year full of crisis, I have observed leaders consistently making two main communication pitfalls. The following focuses on leaders in the Department of Defense, but the lessons learned can apply to any leader seeking to improve as a communicator.
Pitfall No. 1: Poor handling of crucial conversations
A lot of leaders fail to facilitate crucial conversations. What exactly makes a conversation crucial? Some daily interactions are a low threat. We talk with a coworker about their new car or ask the front office if we are going to have the weekly staff meeting. However, there is a lethal combination of factors that transform a regular interaction into a crucial conversation; this occurs when opinions vary, the stakes are high, and emotions run strong. The results of a crucial conversation can have a significant impact on your life and your organization.
Unfortunately, we often shy away from addressing a complicated issue because we worry about making the situation worse. Too many leaders avoid crucial conversations or try to face the conversation but handle it poorly. Sadly, we have bought into the lie that we cannot be both honest and effective.
“Believing the lie” can occur during a feedback session of a negative performance report. As a second lieutenant, I rated on a master sergeant who was not meeting the basic expectations laid out in Air Force Instruction 36-2618, The Enlisted Force Structure. When I officially became master sergeant’s rater, I observed how combative and manipulative they became during feedback or conversations. After examining previous performance reports, I found very few indications of negative performance. The individual consistently had the “firewall five,” the highest score an enlisted member could receive. I quickly realized any conversation surrounding the master sergeant’s performance would be classified as crucial.
I wish I could tell you that the multiple conversations I had regarding the master sergeant’s performance went well. Instead, I struggled for nine months working in the same space as the hostile individual. Sometimes they would choose to lash out and use “verbal violence” as a strategy to convince, attack, label or control others to their point of view. In other instances, they would use silence and purposely withhold information. The person often gravitated toward sarcasm, avoiding specific topics or completely withdrawing. In retrospect, I failed to learn the necessary skills to guide the conversation back to a productive dialogue where there was a meaningful exchange of free-flowing information.
Fair warning. There is a necessity for expectation management surrounding crucial conversations. As leaders, we need to understand the ugly truth described by the authors of “Crucial Conversations”: Often, “when it matters most, we do our worst.”
Emotions can easily hinder effective conversations. Our genetic predisposition demonstrates the tendency of “fight, flight or freeze,” which does not lead to intelligent, persuasive communication. What’s worse is that as we respond to the intense pressure from a difficult discussion, we end up feeling stumped and often act in a self-defeating way. We all have stories of watching a conversation turn explosive, whether it happens on Instagram, during an intramural game or after a commander’s call. Sadly, just because you see what not to do does not mean you have the right tools to be successful.
Tools for the toolkit
1. Practice dialogue. Skilled leaders are fact finders. They discover different ways to obtain all relevant information from existing parties and display the information out in the open. When information flows freely, people are open and honest, share their feelings, and discuss different theories. Leaders who can routinely get this type of dialogue are highly effective.
2. Get over yourself! Do not let your ego get the best of you. Always examine your motives, figure out what is most important, and stay focused. A great question to ask is: “What is the outcome I am looking for?”
3. Get creative. Complex and challenging conversations require creativity. Do not listen to those who tell you it is a lose-lose situation. Create a win-win situation by clarifying what you do and do not want to happen. For instance, when talking with a teammate who is not pulling their weight in a project, ask: “How can I have a candid conversation with _____ about contributing more without creating negative feelings or wasting both of our time?”
4. Find common ground. Often, we tend to think in terms of “us” versus “them.” As leaders, we need to unite each other and keep a central focus on the mission. Make a point to address misunderstandings and misconceptions that occur and cause division. By using contrasting language, you can form a mutual understanding. For example, you could say: “When I said we need to improve our annual training program, I did not mean you have to work weekends until you have completed the necessary training. What I meant was that we need to ensure we have a method and timeline for training.”
5. Check your emotions. If you aren’t careful, you can become hostage to your own emotions. Consider the following scenario.
You are updating your boss and suddenly get interrupted by a peer who blindsides you with a question you are not prepared to answer, and it shows. Your first emotion is pure outrage. Why did your teammate wait until you were briefing your boss to ask such a probing question? You feel angry and, after the meeting, act unprofessionally. You inform your peer, “Next time, when you think about speaking, don’t.”
In between what your teammate said and your angry response, you actually told yourself a story. Stories become our very own interpretation of the facts. When you got asked the unexpected question in the meeting, your story provided the rationale that “my teammate wanted to make me look stupid and discredit my work.” You can take the same set of facts and tell a variety of different stories that lead to emotions.
As a leader, learn the discipline to take control of your story, which will redirect your emotions and consequential actions.
Pitfall No. 2: Failure to connect with your audience
Too many leaders fail to connect with their audience. Have you ever experienced a “death by PowerPoint” briefing or 90-minute staff meeting that could have been summed up with a two-line email? Some of the most brilliant leaders I have worked with lack credibility because they fail to connect. Remember: The message is not about the messenger.
While every leader develops their communication style, I recommend studying communicators you admire, both in and outside of your organization. In your staff meetings and events, challenge yourself to identify what patterns occur and observe the skills the effective communicators are using. You can learn how to connect with an audience by watching what people do right as well as what they do wrong.
Some questions to consider when you are observing people in dialogue, speech or other forms of communication include:
- What interpersonal skills are they using?
- What words are they using or not using?
- How does the communicator relate to the audience?
As a leader, continue asking questions and learning. There are always tools you can further develop to ensure you connect with your audience. Consider some of the following tips to avoid alienating your audience.
In the words of American church figure and author Bill Hybels, “Many leadership problems are driven by low self-awareness.”
Experts argue all great communicators need a heightened sense of situational awareness and contextual awareness. Research suggests self-aware leaders communicate more effectively and build stronger relationships. If we build deliberate plans to develop our expertise in our profession, we must do the same for our personal development. The Center for Creative Leadership Development suggests a simple framework for leadership development that consists of assessment, challenge and support. Often during the assessment process, leaders learn they are not as self-aware as they believed. Many assessment tools can assist you with the process; my top four favorite tools are listed below:
- Behavioral assessments: These help you understand how you see the world and how this shapes your behaviors. There are many free surveys that are easy to take and that provide insightful and actionable tips.
- Strengths assessments: Often companies teach us to learn and develop skills with each new job. However, it is helpful to understand where our natural passions and proficiencies lie. Leadership expert John Maxwell suggests we capitalize on our strengths and develop a team that balances our weaknesses.
- Coaching: We need trusted leaders who can help us reflect, adapt and continue to grow in our self-awareness journey, not just tell us what to do. Working with people who help you think and learn about yourself can be life-changing.
- Feedback mentors: The lines can blur between coaches, mentors, advisers and bosses. Regardless, seek a diverse group of mentors who give direct and honest feedback and help you process feedback that you receive from others. We all have norms, biases, prejudices and experiences that shape how we interact with others. Feedback mentors provide much needed divergent thought.
I worked directly for a brigadier general wing commander when I was deployed as a young company-grade officer. The wing commander fighter pilot was an impressive individual for many reasons, but the quality I admired most in them was their humility. Daily, I saw how they talked with people. They were humble, kind and human. They did not address an airman first class any differently than one of their lieutenant colonel squadron commanders. The wing commander would always admit when they were wrong, be open to new ideas, and communicate where they had weaknesses or blind spots. They had the rank, power and experience, but made people feel valued and special. No matter how smart or talented you may be, a humble and willing ear can help you connect as you communicate.
Do your homework
It’s important to know what people look for and admire in their leaders. In other words, what would make someone willingly follow you? Experts who have studied this topic determined the top two characteristics people want is honesty and competence. Above ambition, loyalty, imagination, maturity, intelligence and independence, followers desire honest, competent leaders.
The good news is honesty is a choice. And while developing our competency within the Armed Forces is a challenge, we must remember we are always learning. Brown shared in a recent interview with former Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Wright, “I have an internal mantra. I do not need to be right. I need to get it right.”
Catch people doing the right things
The last tip you should consider when connecting with your audience is to catch people doing the right things. Often, leaders point out what is wrong. We look for ways for our organization to be more effective and efficient. We send out rosters letting people know they are overdue on ancillary training or medical readiness. We review bullet background papers and uncover grammar and formatting issues.
However, if we only have the “what’s wrong” mindset, we will forget to praise our individuals when they do things right. If you intentionally praise people in public and highlight all the good you see in the unit, you have a much better chance of connecting with people. By always looking for the good, you encourage your people to continue to put in the time and effort required to accomplish the mission.
These two pitfalls were challenging for me during my deployment from January to July of 2020 at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. At times, I failed to lead crucial conversations and stumbled through discussions on systemic racism and injustice in our country. However, these conversations must happen and we must strive to do better. As leaders, our job is to effectively communicate. Are you?
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.