Our work with senior leaders, both through executive coaching and confidential verbal interviews, has revealed that one of the biggest complaints team members report about their senior leaders is a lack of transparent communication. Of course, when you ask senior leaders, they often think they are over-communicating.
The result of this perception of the lack of transparent communication is a reduced level of trust and feeling valuable. In turn, there is an impact on the business: slower decision-making, and misalignment due to a lack of commitment.
In my forthcoming book Unite! The 4 Mindset Shifts for Senior Leaders, I explore the shift from Focusing on Compliance or Consensus to Winning Commitment. You’ll read about two characters, Darryl and Ben, as they navigate the transition into senior leadership roles.
Here’s an excerpt from Unite! with some tips and tools to build commitment and alignment in your organization.
The Communication Continua
Imagine a continuum that describes two polar opposite communication styles. On one end, let’s say the left side, is an aggressive style. The opposite end, to the right, is a passive style. Building commitment requires a shift to the middle of the continuum, depending on whether your leadership style tends to be more on the aggressive end of communication or its opposite, the passive end. The result will be an organization full of people who are committed to what they are doing, and not merely complying or conceding because they feel they must or have given up.
The Passive Side
On the passive side of the equation, the tendency is to be a people pleaser, like Darryl in Unite!, where the leader is overly concerned about making everyone happy and gaining agreement from all the stakeholders. There’s an avoidance tendency that comes with this style as the leader tolerates behaviors that are unacceptable in the workplace.
The consequential decisions at the senior leadership level are too complicated to focus on agreement and making everyone happy. They involve too many constituents and stakeholders. So, the shift for the more passive leader is from focusing on getting consensus to winning commitment.
The Aggressive Side
Going back to our communications continuum, an aggressive leader like Ben in Unite!, with his laser-focused results orientation, tends to formulate his vision and immediately implement it. Leaders like this are usually motivated by change, challenge, and controlling their environment and don’t spend much time getting anyone’s buy-in. Or, they recognize that they need buy-in and ask for input simply to garner support for their position, not because they care what others have to say. As a result, people tend to be compliant around this pushy style instead of owning and being committed to the direction in which the organization will move. It’s not uncommon for team members to spend an enormous amount of time managing around these leaders who are set in their way of doing things and demonstrate an unwillingness to bend.
The consequential decisions at the senior-leader level are too important for simply gaining compliance from people. In the end, decisions will get revisited over and over, and the priorities that are most important to the leader—action and results—will ultimately take longer. So the shift for the more aggressive leader is from focusing on getting compliance to winning commitment.
Building Commitment - Win the Hearts of Your People
How do you make the Mindset Shift from focusing on getting consensus or compliance to winning real commitment? I believe there are three critical components that leaders need to embrace to win the hearts of their people.
CREATE INTENTIONAL MESSAGING
The first is to create structured and intentional communication.
This piece of the commitment puzzle is about being intentional with your messaging and using all available channels of communication in a systematic way. It’s about ensuring that you and other leaders on your leadership team are communicating the same or similar message that is aligned with the company direction. It’s also about using multiple communication channels to spread your message consistently every day. John Kotter, in his classic Harvard Business Review article, “Leading Change,” talks about the power of ten leaders sending ten messages every day instead of solely relying on the all-hands meeting as the primary channel of communication.
COMMUNICATE THE BIG WHY
When I was going through Ranger School as a young Army officer and the instructor told us to head out on a fifteen-mile road march, we just did it. No questions asked. That might sound like blind obedience, but it wasn’t. We knew exactly why the Ranger instructors put us through hell. They wanted to weed out people who weren’t cut out to be Rangers.
In the military when commanders create their mission orders, they always include a statement called “commander’s intent.” The idea was that you always know why you were being sent out on a mission. It frees you up to make decisions when there isn’t clarity.
Instead of making a change and then just expecting others to accept it and comply, offer the following:
- Discuss the alternatives that were considered.
- Tell people what you know and what you don’t know—and why.
- Acknowledge how the decision will affect everyone.
At the end of the day, your team members appreciate transparency and openness, even if the decision may negatively affect them. Transparency and openness also make people feel like they are trusted, respected, and connected to their organization—instead of being left in the dark. And when people understand why, it helps establishes a sense of urgency for next steps.
MAKE ROOM FOR DIALOGUE
Creating structured communication and explaining the “Big Why” are about making communication intentional. Both components are important yet not sufficient—largely because they have a one-way focus. The third and perhaps most important component of building commitment is allowing for dialogue.
Genuine and pure dialogue gives people the freedom and opportunity to let you know the truth. This two-way conversation is where true interaction occurs, as leaders engage people not just in formal settings, such as the all-hands meeting, but also at every opportunity, from the chance encounter to the scheduled team meeting.
As leaders, you have to provide both content and context. One without the other rarely leads to true commitment.
Content is simply the information about the topic at hand: the data, the project plans, and the next steps.
The context, however, is everything we’ve talked about here: the structured messaging, the rationale behind the decision, and the dialogue with people so they are filled with the information you want them to have instead of the stories they’ve made up themselves.
Unite! The 4 Mindset Shift for Senior Leaders launches on May 25, 2017. Pick up a copy on Amazon or your favorite bookstore and learn more about the mindset shifts required to be successful at senior levels of leadership.
And, as always, we’d love to hear your perspective. How do you build commitment on your teams?