The Daily Practice of Leadership Communication During Times of Change

In this article Terry Pearce, the author of LEADING OUT LOUD A Guide For Engaging Others In Creating The Future, places authenticity and empathy at the heart of corporate communication. To be an effective leader and build healthier, more honest forms of communication within your company, you must learn to show your true Self to others. Creating an atmosphere of authenticity will help leaders to foster trust, creativity and performance with their employees.

When leaders first think of announcing a significant change or initiative, a speech or presentation is the method that most often comes to mind. While such an initial introduction is necessary, it is in the far more frequent, informal and spontaneous conversations—in the town halls, meetings, and one-to-one conversations that take place in conference rooms, offices, and around the coffee machine — that leadership communication is most often practiced. To be effective as a leader we must over time bring ourselves authentically, in our real skin, to the full range of situations in which we will be called to move our advocacy forward.

Who you are and what you care about does not change in the course of moving from formal speaking to casual conversation — although finding the courage to express the reality of your humanness may come more easily in one venue than in another. In informal conversations and discussions, of course, authenticity must happen in real time. In the face of questions, contributions, and challenges, the natural human tendency is to defend ourselves, patronise others, avoid personal exposure, and make our point with even greater certainty. In the process, we could drive wedges that make it difficult for others to listen carefully, or to speak with honesty or candour in our presence.

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It takes only practice and planning to deliver a great speech, but it takes emotional awareness, discipline and practice to stay authentic regardless of the situation.

Emotional awareness is critical in these most-frequent and most critical situations. To gain support for a change, it’s more important to know how to create an environment in which people feel safe to honestly express real thoughts and feelings, including disagreements, than it is to deliver a speech with clarity and heart. It takes only practice and planning to deliver a great speech, but it takes emotional awareness, discipline and practice to stay authentic regardless of the situation, consistently interacting in a way that engenders trust and inspires commitment. Having made the decision to lead, you have a responsibility to extend yourself beyond your immediate emotional response to an interaction that includes empathy for others. This is not always easy — in fact, it is rarely easy. But if you are going to lead, it is essential.

These dynamics come into play in informal settings and through frequent electronic media interactions like blogs, emails, and voice messages. Soliciting and answering questions and generating proactive communication through other media are common events for today’s leaders of change; and because these media are so immediate, their use lends itself to spontaneity more than it does to practice, models, and rules. These encounters happen in informal atmospheres when we have something else on our minds. They are difficult in that they catch us when we are prone to react rather than respond. Pressure situations require a higher level of consciousness, an extra breath to allow the amygdala to disengage, to allow our real selves to come through.


Interacting in Person, Assessing Performance:
In addition to the more remote interactions —voice mail, email, Webex and other social media, there are the more personal ones . . . the ones that we dread the most, and yet might be the most critical to our success.

Perhaps the most difficult example is actually personally assessing the performance of others. Such interactions are hard to accomplish objectively while still being mindful of the emotional atmosphere of the communication.


Performance Evaluation
Evaluation and coaching the performance of others is a key element of a leader’s role — not just the formal annual performance appraisal that is common in business, but the regular and informal feedback that shapes day-to-day behaviour. Being able to candidly let individuals know how they are performing and then offer suggestions for change requires a level of interpersonal skill. This is particularly true during major change, as people tend to drag their feet or need reinforcement from the leader to continue the process.

In addition to voice mail, email,Webex and other social media, there are the more personal interactions. . . the ones that we dread the most, and yet the most critical to our success.

Not surprisingly, performance measurement is reported as the most onerous communication required of business leaders, particularly during times of rapid change. It is the forced breaking of convention — it is a time in which we are supposed to tell the truth in order to rate someone’s performance and help them improve. But few want to do that.

In business, companies struggle with getting appraisals completed on time, and when they do, they struggle with compression at the top of the curve, with far more people being rated “A” or “exceeds requirements” than “D” or “needs substantial improvement.” As a result, when a person’s performance deteriorates to a level that requires corrective action, or when a reduction in force requires that a company lay off the weakest performers, few leaders and few employees are prepared. The weaker performers have not been told the truth, so not infrequently, the person fired has been told, in sequence, “good,” “good,” and “goodbye!” This “good” “good,” is the equivalent of social promotion in the school system, and like that phenomenon, has a detrimental impact on everyone. The person laid off has not been given honest feedback that might have sparked real improvement. The leader has shirked the responsibility to develop the employees. Those remaining feel their fired co-worker was treated unfairly. (And they are right.) They also may begin to doubt the importance of their own good appraisal, and fear that they might be the next to go. Engagement and loyalty suffer.

Having made the decision to lead, you have a responsibility to extend yourself beyond your immediate emotional response to an interaction that includes empathy for others.This is not always easy — in fact, it is rarely easy.

How could an appraisal be conducted using the models offered in my book LEADING OUT LOUD? Listen to this leader introduce the process to one of her direct reports:

• Tom, this appraisal is a ritual that we perform on a regular basis, and sometimes it can be a difficult one. It really helps if we keep the purpose in mind. We’re here to make sure that you and I see eye-to-eye on your performance, and to help you to continue to improve and develop so you can grow your career.

(Stating the purpose of the communication and the commonly desired change.)

• I wouldn’t be surprised if you were nervous about it. Sometimes being graded doesn’t feel so good. Truthfully, in the past, this has not been my favourite activity either, but as soon as I can see it as a chance to help you rather than a chore I have to perform, I feel differently about it. That point of view also helps me see any criticism I might offer as constructive rather than hurtful or personal. It is my intent to be helpful in this process, not just to give my personal opinion of how you’ve done.

(Acknowledging feelings, admitting vulnerability, distinguishing between the employee’s context —criticism—and the leader’s—support. Pointing to commonality —desire for improvement.)

• What I thought we could do is review briefly where we’ve been, take a look at your plan from last year, our expectations that we set down, then review where we are, how you’ve performed against the benchmarks, and then spend some time looking to the future—where you want to go. Then at the end, we can make some commitments to one another about what we are going to do for the next period. How does that sound?

(Establishing the framework, asking for the other’s point of view — empathy.)

Of course, if this response is not real, it has no value. But if the leader has carefully considered it, then it will form the basis for trust. The leader has established some trust by being clear about purpose, acknowledging some resistance, and relating personal motivation. Then she has suggested that the two create a shared context by reviewing the “story” as they have both seen it, which will be the main part of the appraisal. She has also suggested a look to the future, and the certainty of making commitments to one another to help bring that future about. If the leader is able to direct the conversation, maintaining emotional control, the interview can result in a positive outcome for both.1

Research clearly shows that in the absence of any sense of who you are, individuals will typically revert to the most negative scenario.

Not in Person but Still Personal
Aside from formal evaluation, nearly every other kind of leadership communication can be done electronically, but only after you have earned the privilege; only after the recipients know you and trust you. Only in your presence can recipients of your communication fill in any literal ambiguity from their personal experience of who you are. Whatever form these messages take, the key element is your deployment of your Self; your commitment to be satisfied only with inspiration rather than information. If you have been face-to-face with those you are e-mailing or texting, the ambiguity can be dissipated. But research clearly shows that in the absence of any sense of who you are, individuals will typically revert to the most negative scenario.

During change efforts, proactive messages are critical to progress, as others are constantly reassessing, asking themselves: Why are we doing this? What is my role? Am I secure here or not? Does the leader have a grip on what’s happening? All this uncertainty can be allayed, but not with information alone. Rather than needing only rational explanations to commit, people need emotional reinforcement. This is the leader’s charge, to maintain a leadership perspective in all communication throughout the process, in every proactive change communication that takes place, even electronic communication.

Tom Lewis, co-author of A General Theory of Love, opines that a well-written letter or e-mail can be more effective in transmitting empathy than an impersonal face-to-face encounter and I agree, but consciousness, inclusion and familiarity are the keys. The more people know you personally, the more likely they are to fill in whatever they need to make your message effective on both these levels. To test the truth of this statement, imagine an email from a new HR executive telling you that he wants to discuss your job performance with you, versus the same words, same format from your boss of five years. One creates anxiety, the other seems much more routine and less threatening. Spouses who have lived together for thirty years barely have to talk to understand one another. Lawyers in a courtroom have to cover every detail. One communication requires practically no context, and the other requires very high context; every word must be defined.

Electronic communication (including voice mail, e-mail, Web meetings, video, teleconferencing, and more) to support your change efforts is only as effective as your ability to continue to deploy your Self as well as provide information. These media are once-removed from human contact, and as such, they can seem sterile and inflexible. Still, if you as leader have established your trustworthiness and competence personally, by deploying yourself generously with those you wish to inspire, these modes can be used effectively to reinforce your message.

Follow-up conversation, performance appraisal, and electronic reinforcement are all inevitable in change initiatives. They call for the leader’s best — self-awareness, self-control, and empathy. With these three, even the most difficult and complex communication can be productive.

Adapted from LEADING OUT LOUD A Guide For Engaging Others In Creating The Future by Terry Pearce, President of Leadership Communication.

About the Author
Terry Pearce, the author of LEADING OUT LOUD A Guide For Engaging Others In Creating The Future, has been called the éminence grise of executive coaches by BusinessWeek magazine. He is the founder and president of Leadership Communication, a coaching and consulting company with clients that include CEOs, senior public officials, and elected leaders.

Pearce is a former executive with IBM, and for many years, taught Leadership Communication at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas Graduate School of Business, and at the London Business School. He is a frequent keynote speaker in the United States and abroad.

1. For a complete discussion of this framework, see LEADING OUT LOUD, 3rd ed.



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