Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” All too often, leaders fall for this illusion, believing that if they said it, then the message has been both heard and understood. Some leaders deepen the illusion by believing that they have also gained agreement about how to think and act.
Over 30 years of leading, observing and developing leaders and teams, we have come to recognize that telling is not good enough. Leaders today should move away from an over-reliance on the one-sided communication that is characteristic of “command and control” to the language and behavior of connecting.
Jack Eckerd, founder of Eckerd drugstores, modeled the value of having collective, inclusive, open and reciprocal communications. He knew that such connecting language and behavior would help him make better decisions and give him greater and sustained influence. He was often heard inviting new leaders, indeed all employees, to speak up, to connect and to fully participate in the conversation. He would say, “I am paying you for your expertise and perspective, not to recite mine. I know what I know and think. What I need to know is what you know and think.”
Consider the following benefits you gain when you move from telling to connecting.
i. Secure Enlistment, Not Just Compliance.
The use of command and control language may foster compliance at the expense of engagement or commitment. Leaders who use position power, and who are strong-willed communicators, can bend the will of others to comply with their wishes. Such speakers take a position and demand or push that position often without any consideration of what others want, need, know or believe. Since compliance does not require agreement or foster ownership, it can be hard to sustain in the face of new or contradictory information, barriers to the desired outcome, or competing priorities.
The use of connecting language (e.g., collective pronouns and inclusive statements) and connecting (i.e., open and reciprocal) behavior fosters the development of commitment and shared accountability. Leaders create connections by balancing advocacy for their own position with active inquiry of the ideas, beliefs, needs and recommendations of others. They enlist, rather than command, first by learning, second by considering, and finally by integrating those ideas and beliefs into their own thinking.
When others believe their needs and beliefs matter and that their knowledge and insights can make a difference, they are enlisted. When they are enlisted, their intrinsic motivation will enlist them to integrate new information, find ways around barriers and resolve competing priorities.
ii. Increase Initiative, Not Dependency.
Leaders who insist that employees do only – and exactly – as they are told limit them to doing only what the leader declares to be right and true. This “telling” can create a dependency that reduces initiative, innovation, risk-taking and collective problem-solving. It teaches others to wait for answers, to wait for information or to wait for direction. If the leader is unavailable when action is needed, no action is taken. People cease making decisions.
Most organisations cannot afford to have employees waiting to be told. Instead, they need employees who understand that their purpose in the organization is greater than a list of tasks on a job description. Connecting leaders invite employees to share and test their ideas, to look for opportunities to make a difference, and to resolve problems they discover. Connecting leaders use collective pronouns and engage in collective problem-solving. These leader behaviors increase initiative, not dependency.
iii. Know More, Not Less.
Leaders who only “tell” are information-blind. They operate under the false premise that asking others is not necessary, because they already have the best information and all the required information. They fail to seek or listen to the information that others know. They never learn the brutal facts that others have discovered. They make decisions blind to options, perspectives, feelings and facts that might have led to a more effective, innovative or otherwise better decision.
By connecting with people who know things they do not know, or who may interpret shared information differently, leaders can access and evaluate relevant insights and information. Leaders who practice open and reciprocal communication learn more, know more and consider more and are, therefore, better equipped to make the complex decisions with which they are charged.