Monday morning. 9am. A supplier meeting is being held in the swanky central London offices of a well-known organisation. There are 6 people present. Four from our well-known organisation and two from the supplier. The new director of strategy in the organisation has set the ambition for relationships going forward and it aligns with the business strategy of developing a spirit of partnership between organisation and supplier. The director of strategy has laid out an approach for meetings which focuses on simplifying and standardising the meeting process. As such, he has instructed that every meeting will be run along the same lines… it’s a structured conversation beginning with one minute of ‘pleasantries’ and then straight into issues the supplier needs to get on board with – is this good team communications?
You can imagine the impact a constraining one minute of pleasantries had on developing relationships. A sincere attempt to help all parties involved with clarity, direction and structure led to a breakdown in communication, not a bettering of it. A cursory and formal minute of polite inquiry before launching into demands led to a diminution of relationships, loss of respect, engagement, and support – and pretty much zero motivation for everyone involved.
Communicating transactionally, using command and control, applying authority and force to get things done is the reverse of what engaged and motivated people seek. Communication matters. It creates community. It’s the cornerstone of any culture and our communication style is intrinsically linked to who we are. But how we communicate is largely automatic, or unconscious and our time feels better spent focusing on things we haven’t yet mastered. But, as Marcus Buckingham said, ‘People join organisations, and leave managers.’, so, our ability to speak to our teams effectively could be the difference between success and failure, between people staying or going.
Effective communication is simple – but not easy. As an aspiration, better communication is often used as a term to describe how we deliver messages – how we transmit ideas, set direction and advance the conversation. But for respect, motivation, engagement, support and retention of people, you need to focus your communication on asking good questions and listening with skill and commitment. Daily practice and discipline are essential to developing skill and getting better as a communicator. It’s not magic, but effort and ritual that transform the way we connect with people. How they respond is not in our hands, but our approach to securing a positive reaction is something we can control.
Here are 5 ways that you can improve team communications and lead your business to greater success as a result.
Firstly, winning respect. The truth about respect is that it’s a quality multiplied by giving it away – and what a valuable gift it is. Giving people respect acknowledges their status and importance, making them feel rewarded and, in turn, enhancing psychological safety. Use communication to validate the people around you:
In presentations, take the opportunity to name people whose work you admire or whose contributions have made a difference.
Thank people in meetings for challenging or offering a perspective and for asking good questions.
In conversations, take time to appreciate comments or feedback and to those who listen well.
Committing to this adds value in so many ways – not least because to offer recognition, you must be present and available to notice what people are saying. The result is that your acknowledgement of people will be sincere – a crucial component in winning respect.
You’ll also win respect by communicating your personal values. Let people know who you are and what matters to you. We earn respect by sharing our struggles and helping others see how we have, or have not, overcome our challenges and difficulties. Respect comes from understanding – pay attention to connecting on a personal level and respect will follow.
Secondly, aim for motivation, but start with inspiration. We all want to feel surrounded by motivated and engaged people, but here, it’s worth considering the semantics and impact of language. To motivate is to push – you’ll be doing the work, driving the call to action and needing to role model the energy required to get you there. To motivate successfully, you may need to offer reward – keep reminding colleagues of the prize as you dangle the carrot and wield the stick in equal measure. As a communicator, it’s a full-on push strategy bringing out your inner personal trainer. The motivator voice is strong, pacey, and tireless. To inspire, though, is a different matter involving an inner connection to ambition and aspiration. Get curious about what matters to your people by creating conversations that probe a little deeper and then communicate the connection between what you are seeking to achieve and what matters to them. To inspire is to pull people in – tell stories, use coaching questions, and use phrases like ‘Let’s imagine…’ and ‘What if…’.
Thirdly, your ability to engage people must be a leadership priority. Engaged people go the extra mile, creating good energy in the business and when they talk about the business. This energy is infectious, and your communication plays a big part in creating the conditions that foster it.
A simple strategy is to have as many conversations across the business as possible – talk to everyone you can to find out what’s going on and how people are really feeling. Don’t be a surprise visitor to anyone that engages with your business, but be the leader that is spontaneous, curious, and open. Pay attention to your own energy here – if you feel flat, drained, or overwhelmed, you won’t be able to listen well, and your people will feel your heart is not really ‘in it’. Think in shifts and allow yourself downtime to recharge your communication batteries.
Next, you’ll need to make sure you support your people. `The dictionary definition of support is to bear weight or offer material assistance. It sounds like an active process and yet, to enable your people to feel supported as you communicate requires something much more challenging; to support is to listen. Leaders and founders of businesses are often driven by a desire to move things forward, change things for the better and this proactive mindset is all about offering solutions. As a communicator, this is risky. Recognising the need for support might well tempt you to give advice and help the other person see the clear way forward, but this strips a person of their autonomy. Start with listening – challenge yourself to use silence, encourage them to share more when they start speaking, play back to them the words they use that you find significant and summarise what you’ve heard them say… without offering a word of advice or pushing a solution. As their conversation comes to a conclusion, you can ask if they’d like your view.
Finally, if your people feel heard, understood and cared about, they will find it hard to move away from your business because they will feel connected to it – and you. But, as a communicator, there’s an active step to take to retain your great people and that is to communicate a future that is shared by, and tailored to, them. This is where you need to speak publicly – and frequently – about the business purpose, the vision and what you want for the people who work alongside you. Work at using the senses as you describe where you’re going – detail how it looks, what it sounds like, how it feels. Use this sensory narrative to bring tiny details to life and build a compelling and rich picture of what’s on the horizon. We all need something to look forward to – a future we can imagine. Create a narrative where your people play a key role and can see themselves alongside you growing a successful business they can be proud of and responsible for. They’ll stay.
Janie Van Hool is a prominent communication expert specialising in leadership development programmes and executive coaching. Janie teaches the art of communication, presence and impact to professionals in a range of organisations, from the construction industry to investment banking. As Founder and Director of VoicePresence, Janie has worked as a workshop facilitator and 1:1 coach for more than 20 years, enhancing the communication skills of executives and creating listening company cultures. She also has extensive experience in developing and delivering high potential leadership programmes for graduates – and teaches at some of the world’s top business schools including the Ashridge Hult flagship senior executive leadership programme. Janie is the acclaimed author of The Listening Shift: Transform your organization by listening to your people and helping your people listen to you (Practical Inspiration, 2021). The book explores the power of listening, which often flies under the radar when it comes to communication in business. It is the ultimate guide to learning how to cut through the noise and listen expertly. The Listening Shift draws on the learning and experiences she has gained as a RADA-trained classical actress, a voice teacher (she has an MA in Voice Studies), from her research into Performance Psychology at Edinburgh University, and from her years volunteering as a listener for Samaritans in the UK.