There is good evidence1 that communicating in an inspiring way increases your effectiveness as a leader. People become more engaged, their levels of achievement and their sense of common purpose and well-being rise. (We have a whole section devoted to the important topic of engagement here.)
Excellent communication is not a matter of flashy techniques. It is a matter of understanding what people want to know, and responding through your words and actions. People want to hear what you say on some key topics, and even more they want to see evidence that your actions match your words. (We are covering your ‘big picture’ leader communications here. Obviously most of your communication will be about detailed ‘operational’ matters, which are specific to your role and organisation).
- what exactly does an ‘inspiring communicator’ need to communicate?
- how should do they do it?
Some things we know make a difference2, and these should form the basic structure of your leadership communications. The list below, showing what you should include in your major communications, is evidence-based; it provides a good structure for key communications whether you are a team leader, a department head or CEO.
People want to:
- Understand your vision
- Find it inspiring
- See your commitment
- Feel optimistic it can be achieved
- Feel a sense of common purpose
- Feel they can trust you
People need to understand what your vision is – the ‘what’ of what you are trying to achieve together, and the ‘why’ of how it fits into your collective values as a team or organisation. You will need to set this out frequently, in a way that people can grasp easily and remember, with straightforward words and appealing images. You may want to draw a contrast between alternative possibilities for the future and describe how the vision takes you all towards the future you prefer.
The image of the future that you draw needs to be clear and vivid so that it energizes people when they may be struggling with a more routine part of their work. It needs to embody a strong sense of purpose and a real connection with what your team wants to achieve. Depending on the work you are involved in, this sense of purpose may be best covered in ‘logical’ terms. On the other hand, your work together may be such that you want to stress values, ethics or emotions that are important to you and the team.
Finding it inspiring
Your leadership communications serve two purposes – practical and symbolic. One aim is simply to set out what you are trying to achieve, but the other is to describe your work together in a way that inspires people.
The evidence indicates that people will find two aspects of the vision motivating and inspiring. They will ask if the vision, and work they will be doing:
- is meaningful to them as individuals (this could vary hugely depending on the work people are involved in - a nurse, a factory worker and a sales rep may well find different things meaningful)
- is sufficiently ambitious to be motivating, but not so challenging that they will be daunted by the prospect
You will want to communicate to people in a way that helps them personally to identify with what the team is trying to achieve. Which means understanding and responding to their specific concerns and enthusiasms. If you match your message to your audience, and people can personally identify with it, they will feel more committed, fulfilled and engaged in their work. This has direct consequences for their job satisfaction, their sense of achievement and their performance.
People also find ambitious goals inspiring – especially if they have had a hand in setting them. The goals need to be reasonable, but ambitious enough that people can feel a sense of achievement when they reach them.
The tone of your major communications should be as optimistic and confident as it is reasonable to be in the circumstances. Not unrealistic, or people will doubt your competence, but it should come across that you see the future positively and feel convinced that you and the team have the skills and experience to deliver on the targets set. The section on optimism sets out the evidence that optimism is associated with more perseverance when setbacks happen, higher performance and improved health and well-being.
People will also want to hear and see your personal commitment to working for and achieving the vision you set out. They will want to hear your passion and energy for your work together. It helps if you can speak personally about how important this is to you and how hard you will work for it. This will imply a contract between you and the team on which you can be judged - which people will find inspiring.
As a leader it is important to stress the common bonds that bind you together as a team – your ideals, your support for each other and your collective sense of identity. This helps people to feel a sense of personal identification with the team and its work, and that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There is evidence that this heightened sense of common purpose gives more meaning to people’s work, which in turn increases their wellbeing and their drive to achieve.
Finally, none of this communication will ring true for your team and inspire them unless they trust you and they feel you trust them. Trust is at the core of effective leadership. (See the section on trust and why it should be a central focus for your work as a leader).
People will look first at your behaviour. Do you treat everyone fairly? Do you keep people in the picture, involve them in decisions and show you trust them? Do you keep the promises you make?
Then they will review your communication, and will make a judgement about how authentic and genuine your ‘inspiring communication’ sounds. As a leader, your communication skills are important but not as important as people’s experience of you from day to day. Boss-watching is an organisational sport, and the smallest gaps between what you say and what you do can reduce people’s trust. If you say people are your most important asset but are seen to spend all your energy on cutting costs it will be noticed. Valuing your people and cutting costs may well be perfectly consistent, but an explanation might re-assure your team. You are always on stage, so your communications must feel authentic to you - and be seen as authentic by them.
Being an ambassador
This section has focused on communicating within your team or organisation. There will probably be people outside the team who are affected by, or interested in, what your team does. Teams often don’t spend enough time and effort consistently spreading their message. Management teams, for example, have meetings and then overlook the fact that other people need to know about agreements that have been reached, decisions made.
This is partly “educational” – letting people know what they need to know – but there is an “emotional” side too, linking people in to what the team is striving for. Good communication engages people in your story of why the team is passionate about its work.
1. See eg Banks et al, 2017, A meta-analytic review and future research agenda of charismatic leadership, The Leadership Quarterly, 28 508 - 529
2. See eg recent meta-analysis of 600 research papers in Ng, 2017, Transformational leadership and performance outcomes, The Leadership Quarterly, 28 385 - 417
- Exercise - Improving your 'inspirational appeal' influencing style
- Exercise - Creating an Empowered and Optimistic Culture
- Exercise - Reflecting on your personal experience of trusting someone at work
- Exercise - Review your own track record on trust
- Exercise - Improving your 'collaborative' influencing style
- Exercise - Improving your 'rational persuasion' influencing style