You’ve been thinking about communication completely wrong

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place.” So wrote George Bernard Shaw, one of the history’s greatest communicators. It is estimated that during his long life the Irish writer penned no fewer than a quarter of a million letters, this in addition to a staggeringly prolific literary and critical output.

Now, no one is asking you to be Shaw. Send that many e-mails and your team members will most likely rise in revolt. But what is demanded is a meticulous, humane approach to both verbal and nonverbal communication, one that combines alignment and a very healthy give-and-take.

Takeaway: Be judicious in communicating and don’t be fooled into thinking it has taken place.

What I call alignment comes from rigorous self-examination. Thus, the first person you have to lead is yourself. As a leader, you must ask yourself who you really are – in the present day, not who you were at the outset of your career. What is your dream? From there flow several other questions: What drives you? What are your values? Your strengths? Your weaknesses? Does your inner purpose dovetail with the purpose of your company? Incorporate the answers to these questions into your outlook and you are well on your way to alignment.

Once confident of your personal and professional alignment, you can communicate to others your vision, inspiring them to follow your lead. The first task is to take care to express yourself clearly. This may seem self-evident, but there are examples of executives who do not do this, as if challenging team members to figure out what the boss is thinking. No one is able to divine your motives and ideas if you do not give voice to them.

Takeaway: Communicate clearly and explicity.

Not that your ideas are the only ones out there. Far from it. Communication is not a raging torrent of strategies and opinions thundering down from the mountaintop. Again, no one is asking you to be George Bernard Shaw. Neither is communication the regular push-me-pull-you of the tides, where reaction immediately follows action. Rather it is more like a river, with multiple tributaries coming in and out at all times. And that river can be viewed as your company, where the input of your team members is solicited and valued, where you well and truly listen to what others have to offer, where you are all flowing to a collectively agreed upon goal.

Takeaway: Communication is not a one-way street. It is a network of tributaries and opinions. Listen to others.

In my experience, some successful executives take care to be the last to speak, to hold their tongue until the conclusion of a meeting. This, to ensure that their opinion does not overshadow or influence the opinions of others. As one put it succinctly, “I have two ears and one mouth, so I spend much more time listening than speaking.” These same aligned executives also take care to accentuate the positive, for the role of the leader is to spark positive energy and creativity. They banish from their body-language repertoire, for example, the elaborate eye-roll when someone suggests something outlandish. They know that today’s outlandish might well turn into tomorrow’s strategy. Marshall Goldsmith, the pre-eminent figure in leadership coaching, makes a similar point in his book entitled What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Takeaway: Be positive.

Times have changed. The old model of executives issuing top-down directives to be carried out by middle management no longer holds. The business world has been transformed: it is far more rapidly moving and volatile than in the past. Moreover, team members, especially millennials, do not like to be told what to do without sufficient explanation. They prize autonomy – and meaning: they like to know why they are doing things.

A consultant brought in to turn around a failing retail chain seized on that insight. He initiated the company’s redefinition by inviting every member of the executive team to share their “why” over dinner. Some time later, store managers and other field leaders were invited to do the same during an “all in – what drives you?” retreat. In most firms, executives and managers can and should take their place beside the front-liners, those on the shop floor, retail space, etc. A good first question? The same as for yourself. “What is your dream?” Their answer to this serves as a means to determine their own sense of purpose and, in the end, align that purpose with that of the company.

Takeaway: Purpose is built into effective communication.

A breakthrough in communication within a company does not happen overnight. Trust must be built; candor, rewarded. If, as a leader, all you get is sunny feedback, it is time to become skeptical and unearth what people might not be saying out loud.

Takeaway: Sunny feedback is not feedback.

One of my clients, the CEO of a healthcare business, ran into a wall of silence when he decided to adjust his communication style. No one understood what he was doing or why, but he decided he would share more, encourage collaboration and input, and listen. He called a meeting, communicated his strategy, and asked for collective feedback. “What do you think of the plan? Can we improve anything?” he asked. No one peeped, except to make vague acquiescing noises. “Everything is perfect!” he concluded. Without knowing it he had come across what Shaw identified as the biggest problem in communication – the illusion that it has taken place.

Takeaway: Silence is not golden.

He eventually realized that something was not right. So what did he do? He regrouped. He met with his top collaborators, one by one, and carefully took more time to explain his vision and purpose, and why he thought them beneficial to the company and its people. And he asked them a different question this time: “Where do we have problems?” He worked to convince his team that he was genuinely interested in their opinion and he made space to listen. The dam eventually broke. He got many suggestions and contributions, some of which pointed to problems he hadn’t seen before. The discussions generated fresh approaches that improved his initial plan.

Takeaway: When the warning lights of bad communication flash, roll up your sleeves and talk individually to team members.

Getting your team to this point requires effort. Above all else, your company culture should harbor what social scientists call “psychological safety” – a secure space and process devoid of the fear of ridicule or reprimand. Your team members should be able to speak their minds openly. They must know that their opinions and criticisms are valued. Google wholeheartedly agrees with this approach. For two years the company conducted a rigorous internal survey into what makes their teams most effective. The number one element? Feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another – in other words, psychological safety. The qualifications of those on the team turn out to be far less important than how the team interacts and communicate.

Takeaway: Foster a culture of psychological safety.

So the effective aligned leader should orchestrate this chorus of communication. It must be understand by all at the outset that the company does not function as a zero-sum game. No, when team members win, the leader wins. In your role of facilitator, you as a leader must encourage the success of others, and a good starting point for that is effective communication. But you must be on the look-out for the warning signs of ineffective communication at all times.

Hortense le Gentil is an Executive Leadership Coach and Marshall Goldsmith #MG100 Certified Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching.