Essential Management: Flex Your Communication Style for Context

Your employees need clear communication—delivered in the proper manner

Vy Luu
Vy Luu
Jun 18 · 10 min read
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

News Alert: A Canadian woman has come forward and turned herself in. She pleads guilty to countless crimes of impaired driving behind the leadership wheel.

Officials say she will serve a minimum of 12 years of regret. Emotional trauma, distrust of leadership, and missed excellent potential are charges still pending. Many are injured, a few are in critical condition. The magnitude of the pain caused by this woman’s leadership is still unclear.

That woman is me.

I became a manager in 2004; I was new, yet motivated to be a decision maker. I’ve learned many lessons since then, and those lessons came from a series of mistakes, all based on not adapting my communication style to the context at hand.

I needed to do better. Here’s what I learned, and how you can avoid those same mistakes.

People typically become bad bosses because of inexperience and lack of skills, not because they set out to be terrible. Individuals are often given a senior position based on their work excellence in a previous role. Their last position may not have been a leadership function. That was the case in my first management position.

I was an expert in business analysis, technical support, and client services. I had zero formal training in managing people. Even so, I was promoted to head a team of five. In my naivety, I undervalued leadership training. I needed education, experience, or focus on learning and development.

The biggest lessons turned out to be about communication and, in particular, how to adjust the way I communicated with the context of the situation at hand.

Crime 1: Choosing the Wrong Medium

In a hurry to start new work, instant messaging seemed like the quickest approach. I sent a note about the sizeable project to a team member via our chat app. I had little time, missing bathroom breaks and lunch to attend every meeting on my calendar that day. The needed outcome was clear in my head, and I had high confidence that I could articulate the need clearly.

I was wrong.

The receiving team member read my message and had many questions. Rightfully expecting there would be a chance to get together about it, she wrote back, ‘OK.’ But I interpreted her response to mean she understood the request, and that the work would begin shortly.

When I followed up one week later, I learned the work had not started, and there were unasked questions. I was annoyed and requested an explanation. We conceded we should have spoken sooner and had both been left frustrated by my poor choices.

In my haste, I sent a text message that lacked the details about my expectations—including, notably, a completion date—and caused confusion. I spewed out words and delivered an ambiguous message using an inappropriate tool. Text messaging is the wrong medium to launch a project.

My partner had warned me of the importance of planning before speaking or acting. Snappy demands can also induce short term irritations that turn into long term trouble. It leaves adverse effects on individuals and organizations.

When communication is weak, the victims are employees, managers, and their companies. The consequences are lowered morale, loss of trust, and missed achievements.

Prevention tactic: Deploy superior talk tools

There are many choices for the communication medium you use: email, one-on-one meetings, video conferences, Slack, Google hangout, Skype, and more. Despite the flood of collaboration tools introduced each year, employees say their top concern is how their manager interacts with them.

91% of employees surveyed by Interact said poor manager communication is their number one complaint.

These survey results scream at leaders: meet and talk with your teams about work as well as non-work.

Part of the leader’s challenge, then, is to select an appropriate medium. The message itself is only one part of the equation. What is not said is just as powerful as what is said.

While I continue to learn and tweak message delivery options, I have received higher quality responses using these practices:

Email: Use for recapping discussion and upcoming actions. This format does not introduce any new information. It aligns the readers to familiar data. It allows for slight modifications. It surfaces misunderstandings before a plan moves ahead.

Chat: Use for rapid feel-good messages, fun non-business chatter. In some organizations and technology departments, short text bursts may be the default communication channel. This can work when we regularly assess our words and intentions to the appropriateness of the channel. Even so, text chat often lacks the gravitas of face-to-face (via video chat if remote).

Face-to-face: Use for problem-solving, ideation, new project introduction, and coaching. I encourage video conferencing with the camera turned on for discussions with colleagues in different locations. If you need to debate ideas, this is the best channel for it.

Crime 2: Neglecting the Relationship of the Person to the Task

The worst feeling for a leader is to lose trust in a star performer.

I used to think that when this occurred, it was the individual’s fault. That they were once amazing but had let their performance slip or even drop to an unrecognizable state. It can even seem as if they are completely new to the company and new to working with me.

When this happened to me, it turned out that the reality was that it was a new task to the employee.

Because he had been a high achiever, coordinating mini-projects and working independently with ease, I expected a repeat performance. I presumed the same level of excellence would naturally follow in a significantly more complex project. His responsibilities changed from coordinating a hundred-thousand-dollar project to leading a multi-million-dollar project.

He lacked experience in a project of this size and complexity. And because I spent little time with him, he learned little from me about how to handle a larger project.

Asking him to take on this new responsibility because he has been a trusted team member in the past was appropriate. But my part as the leader should have been to have realistic expectations, knowing it is a new task for him and that he needed guidance. I operated using the same leadership method I had in the past with him; hands-off, letting him go through trials and errors. What he needed instead was my availability and step-by-step instructions.

Prevention tactic: Adjust communication to the relationship of the person’s experience to the task

The level of task management depends on the what and the who involved. Here, I borrow marketing concepts to look at the most qualified and motivated individuals for the project and flex to their preferences.

Situational Leadership Theory is a framework for this flexibility that we can apply to each circumstance. I extend this scenario-based thinking to individuals, technologies and communication styles. The right technology and communication method has to be uniquely selected for each individual and his or her assignment.

The framework theorizes leaders can use a directive or supportive approach to manage a new assignment:

  • Directive refers to telling and coaching.
  • Supportive refers to participating and delegating.

The right method is determined based on an individual’s historical performance with the planned task.

When I adopted situational leadership, I mistakenly applied a single approach to the individual. If an individual was generally a high performer, I used the supportive method solely. I neglected to consider the context of the task at hand.

A detailed write-up on each stage of a task by Matt Trainer teaches us the foundation to collaborate effectively at each phase. As a leader, we make the decision to match the person to the project—and then we lead using a method that is appropriate for the level of experience they have with that project.

Instructional Approach | Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

If the employee hasn’t done a project like this before, I use a directive method, stating precisely what, how, and when to complete the task. This style is suitable for an activity that is new to a team member. An individual wanting to develop a new skill will be highly motivated to learn in this style.

The why in this situation becomes less necessary than the how. When we are inexperienced at a task, we appreciate the step-by-step instructions, followed by frequent feedback. The directness of communication is appreciated in this case (if the person has done this task before, however, it becomes micromanagement). These instructions help the individual learn exactly what procedures are needed to meet the desired outcome.

In the directive mode, I designate the precise steps that have worked for previous tasks and monitor closely. I use email, so the individual has a reference resource. I use Google hangouts to check in often.

Collaborative Approach | Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

The supportive method is suitable for an undertaking that has been consistently completed well by the individual. The test I use for this is to ask myself if the team member can outperform me on the task.

If the answer is yes, I spend time advising and motivating, instead of telling them what to do. I focus on creating face-time sessions to brainstorm, dialogue, and generate new ideas.

The takeaway for me has been to write out the new assignment, then note if this team member has never completed a similar exercise or can finish it better than most. From that point, I can make a decision about how to manage them on the project: direct if it’s a brand new accountability, or support if it’s not.

Think Slow to Go Fast | Photo by Ryan Johnston on Unsplash

Crime 3: Taking Communication Shortcuts

In another situation, I went directly to a team member one level away, instead of their manager, because the manager of that individual was busy. “We will save time,” I thought.

“Power should be reserved for weightlifting and boats, and leadership really involves responsibility.” Herb Kelleher

I bulldozed ahead, gave directions, then backed away and let the individual’s manager take care of the follow-up questions. Similar to the unfiltered texting crime, I expected the project to be underway when I met with that team member but once again, I was not as clear as I thought I was, and it had not been initiated at all.

In the end, weeks were lost. Instead of saving time, I had slowed down the project.

I was lucky this manager forgave my poor tactic, then we were able to work through a new plan that gave sufficient time to deliver a high-quality outcome.

Prevention tactic: Think slow to go fast

Planning time is worth it for projects and any activity expected to deliver something great. The higher the payoff, the more up-front time we should devote.

“It does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.” — Confucius

I now reserve dedicated time for in-person meetings to talk about strategic projects. I borrow the project management model for project kick-off and apply it for any type of assignment. These elements are a disciplined approach to discuss regardless of the size of the activity or project:

Why: The reason this project is essential to the business now. As much as possible, I share the story of the future possibilities for the individual and the organization when this project is completed. It is an element intended to help my team understand the value to them and the business.

What: The expected outcome that can be an actual product, service or process improvement. It is centred on visualizing the thing that will be produced. Sometimes, it is a visual that is drawn out, and other times, it can be an external inspiration for what it could be.

When: The timing for milestone activities including project start, activity checkpoints, desired end date, and must-have completion date. Working through a schedule together confirms a plan’s reasonability or highlights a need to adjust expectations.

I use this template to build speaking points critical for the meeting. The work done in advance at the meeting is followed by an email recap that becomes a reference throughout the project.

I have found this approach useful for teams and for myself because, as a leader, I can sometimes forget the decisions or assumptions we agreed on. Having a documented plan to go back to, even for a small scale activity, helps everyone involved.

Becoming the Kind of Leader I Want to Work For

We read about great leaders. We hear about terrible leaders. How often do we reflect the best and worst qualities in ourselves? For me, never enough.

Working on my communication style, and appropriately adjusting it to the context of the situation at hand, improves every aspect of my work.

This week has been a good one. Yesterday, one of the managers on my team said he really appreciates my support and that teams around the organization appreciate my dedication to their excellence. Today, another colleague told me I made a difference in her becoming a leader. My heart is happy when I hear that. It gives me hope to keep learning from my mistakes and to become the kind of leader I would want to work for.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas A. Edison

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Vy Luu

Written by

Vy Luu

Leading, following and stumbling through life. Always searching for advice on becoming a better leader, colleague and human.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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