Leaders Need to Learn to Think So They Can Speak the Truth Clearly by Liz Weber

Liz Weber CMC CSP

Why are so many supervisors, managers, and even some big dogs with the snazzy three letter titles: CEO, CIO, EVP, etc., incapable of communicating clearly?  Why are so many managers unable to provide honest commentary on work performance without belittling the employees, skirting the real issues, or confusing the employees with nebulous, non-specific examples?

Why do so many managers suck at speaking the truth in ways that will help and not hurt employees?

I’m fortunate to work with incredibly bright, creative, and driven business owners and leaders. Yet, they’re often quick to tell me, they don’t know how to provide clear feedback that’s helpful. And they’re right. They don’t. I’ve observed far too many staff meetings and planning sessions in which the leaders ramble on about the teams’ failings, lecture individual employees, or otherwise berate the teams on theoretical, non-specific changes needed. Are their comments interesting? Somewhat. Helpful? No. Demoralizing? Absolutely. So why do leaders continue to do it?  From my perspective:  it’s habit; it’s quick; and most importantly, it doesn’t require any work or change by the leaders. The leaders spew and the employees are expected to react.

Here’s the real problem though, in these situations, the leaders aren’t viewing their responsibilities correctly.

The leaders in these circumstances view the employees as pawns, workers, doers or some other beings that work to produce the organization’s services or widgets. The leaders lead; the doers do. That’s fine in theory, but if leaders truly want doers to “do” at a higher level, the leaders need to learn to lead at higher levels as well. And, that takes time, work, and changes on the part of the leaders first. And that requires the leaders to think, to analyze their current situations, to assess the various drivers of the problems, to assess their roles in creating the situations and drivers, and to assess the teams’ actions, reactions, and needed new actions.

After all of that thinking, the leaders need to develop clear ways to communicate those thoughts to their teams. It means the leaders will have thought, specifically, about what they want and need to say so it’s truly helpful to their team members.

They’re no longer just spewing ideas and words and expecting the team members to form some meaning from them. They no longer practice the behavior of: You need to figure out what I’m trying to say because I haven’t taken the time to get my thoughts and words straight before I open my mouth. 

Leaders who choose to lead at a higher level will take the time to think and identify: What does my team need to hear from me to help them understand, learn, grow, and move themselves and this organization forward?  Then, how can I say it with specifics, examples, data, analogies, visuals, or some other means to make sure everyone understands? What can I do to communicate more clearly?

What these leaders are trying to communicate to their team members is the truth. What these leaders are trying to communicate to their team members needs to be said. What these leaders are trying to communicate will help the employees enhance their performance, improve services to customers, and move the organization. But how they’re saying it sucks. So what needs to change in organizations? Leaders need to learn to think more often before they speak. So when they do speak to provide feedback, what they ultimately say is thoughtful, truthful, intentional, helpful, and clear.


Connect with Liz

Liz’s straight-forward approach to leadership and leadership accountability make her a sought-after consultant, speaker, writer, and trainer.

Follow Liz on Twitter here. Connect with her on Facebook here. And read her blog here.

Liz can be reached at info@WBSLLC.com  or 717-597-8890.

Copyright 2012 Liz Weber, CMC

  • Yes!!! And…
    Leaders who learn the basic requirement for clear communication (even when the picture is a bit foggy) should teach their team leaders the same skill.
    Leaders should always check in with the team to ensure that what was communicated was actually heard.
    Leaders should clarify the challenges (big picture, not at length), then clearly communicate the desired outcomes. And, talk less about the process between the challenge and the outcomes.
    When a leader has to communicate, ‘I don’t know’, ask the team to do the thinking / scenarios, etc. The leader then has to communicate what they heard from the team.

    • Liz Weber

      Thanks for sharing your insights Wally! Why does it take so long for so many to learn? I especially like your idea: When communication happens at the mouth instead of at the ear, you have a blueprint for serious trouble! Beautiful advice for all of us. Thanks again Wally.

  • Liz Weber

    Beautifully stated Alan! Teaching others to communicate more clearly is very difficult and time consuming. But as with any of the leadership communication skills you outlined the above, well worth the effort in the long run.
    PS – I especially like your comment….clarify the challenges (big picture, not at length), then clearly communicate the desired outcomes. Keep it clear; keep it simple. Let the team help identify the solutions they’ll be charged with implementing.
    Thanks again Alan!

    • I do think you have hit on something here Liz. The “how to” communicate won’t happen if it’s not on the person’s radar screen of responsibilities.

      Like you, I have seen this as a consultant over and over. Leaders will overlook behavior believing that they are only responsible for the end result. In some ways, it is an odd version of “the end justifies the means”.

      Yet study after study shows that: attitude —> behavior (individual performance) —> team performance —-> end result (organizational success).

      So here’s an encouraging shout out to every leader — include behavior feedback on your responsibility list and after that we can teach you how to do it with clarity and without offense!

      Great post and thanks for sharing it Liz.

    • Liz Weber

      Hello Khalid & thank you for taking the time to come back a second time to comment! Yes more managers and leaders would do themselves and their teams a favor by studying and focusing on emotional intelligence. Changing a relationship can occur with a simple thank you. I worked with a client group last year and asked the mid-level management team, “Besides more money, what would you most appreciate from the leadership team?” Their number 1 answer: Thank you’s. So Khalid you’re absolutely correct. An acknowledgement of work well done or an acknowledgement that you tried, goes a long way. Thank you again for taking the time to come back and comment. I appreciate you.

  • Great post Liz. A leader who doesn’t think isn’t a leader for very long. Everyone appreciates a thoughtful response. Not only taking the time to think about what needs to be said and how to say it, but also thinking about who we’re talking to. Most leaders who simply react to situations by spouting corrections create monologues rather than dialogues.

    • Great post! True leaders need to stand up, step up and take charge! If they truly want to increase team effectiveness I’m with Liz. They need to relearn communications skills and strategies and model them for followers. If there is a team problem, you can trace it to a bigger problem – lack of leadership.

    • Liz Weber

      Thank you Caroline! Yes building rapport and relationships takes time, but the time required is less when the communication is clear and truthful! Thanks again for taking the time to post! Kudos to you on your great work too! Liz

  • Of all the books, blogs, and articles I’ve read about leadership, I don’t understand why it’s such a challenge for people to step up and just be average leaders. Forget about being uber Leaders!

    I believe the root cause is lack of or weak emotional intelligence. This also is the reason for poor communication skills.

    I recently wrote a blog about the new book, Search Inside Yourself. Worth a look to help your clients.


  • Liz, what you’re describing is straight out of the Taylorist playbook. Leaders think and tell. Followers listen and do. Alas, the more you expect the people around you to act on their own, the less that model makes sense. The military started abandoning it in the early 19th Century. Too many companies haven’t got the message yet.

    Then, as you describe, we have the problem that lazy or sloppy thinking makes clear communication impossible. Too many “leaders” take as their position-given right to vomit nonsense all over and expect others to clean it up. When you add the belief that many senior folks seem to have that communication happens at the mouth, instead of at the ear, you have a blueprint for serious trouble.

  • Hi Liz,

    This is my second attempt to write my comment as I don’t know what happened earlier with my last one.

    I second Steve’s comment on emotional intellegence! Bosses think that people are just like machines. They expect staff to work and hit targets without the human touch from the manager.

    Managers should touch the spirit of the teams before expecting output from them.

    Talking about my work, my boss only cares about maintaining the systems running without complains from users and that what he considers an optimum situation but never thank us in return for maintaining the systems. I know that he appreciates what we do but without formally (or even a thank you email) declare job well done then it has not intrinsic motivation for people!

    Thnks for the great post Liz:)


  • Spot on post, Liz! I too find it amazing how many leaders fail to communicate effectively with their team. Morale in the workplace is extremely valuable to a high functioning team and once lost, it’s very difficult to re-establish. So few leaders get to know their people and what they want or need to execute their professional goals on the job. Being an active listener is a skill that can be developed and a competency that all leaders should employ. Establishing buy-in and rapport with constituents takes a bit of time and effort but it’s also an investment in the health and wellbeing of a team that will ultimately make the workplace more productive. Three cheers to the Dragon Lady of Leadership Accountability for her continued expert advice on this blog – thanks, Liz!!

  • I believe it was Lee Iaccoca who said the team moves at the speed of the boss and Liz you just nailed a big leadership dilemma. Leaders need to step up their game. thanks for the post

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    • Liz Weber

      The surprises are what keep it interesting!

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