Transforming Leadership to Shape the Future

Strategic Leadership Institute

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Pretoria, 0129
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COMMUNICATION: Improve or Fade Away

13/09/2009 14:09


During the ten minutes that it will take you to read this article, you will most likely be interrupted by a telephone call, a text message or two, an incoming e-mail and perhaps someone entering your office demanding your attention for some or other urgent matter. If you’re one of the world’s 250 million active Facebook users,[i] you could also receive a notification that a contact “posted to your wall”, or if you’re subscribed to Twitter you may get a “tweet” to tell you that someone you know has now left for the airport. Then there’s also the possibility of RSS Feeds and blogs, an incoming fax, or your eye might simply catch the heading of a story in the newspaper you planned to read during lunch. Clearly, to say that at this time in human history we’re suffering from communication overload is like telling people that water is wet – everyone knows it, but there’s not much to be done about it. However, at some point or another – perhaps even within the next ten minutes – you’re going to want to be on the “sending” end of some or other communication effort. Whether you’ll be explaining to someone how to rewrite a presentation, sending an email, adressing the board of directors, or simply making a phone call, you’re going to expect people to receive, understand and hopefully even respond to you message.

Key Communication Concepts to Consider

If you’re in a leadership position, efficient communication with your followers is not only an expectation; it might be the crucial factor that will determine the eventual success of you and your organization. According to the 2008/2009 Global Leadership Forecast, which contains information collected from 13,700 leaders and HR professionals around the world, an average of 37% of individual leaders fail, either leaving their positions or failing to achieve their goals.[ii] Participants ranked shortfalls in interpersonal skills – building relationships, networking, and efficient communication – as the single most important reason why so many leaders fail.[iii]


Communicating for Follower Effectiveness

The other side of the coin is that leaders who are efficient communicators are more likely to succeed, largely due to the effect that good communication has on their followers. For instance, studies in different fields have shown strong and conclusive correlations between leaders’ communication competence and their followers’ job satisfaction and job commitment.[iv] Job satisfaction is an individual’s positive or negative attitude toward their work and working conditions, which in turn has an important effect on individual performance, productivity, absenteeism and motivation.[v] This means that followers of leaders who communicate well are generally happier in their jobs, they are more motivated, they perform better, and this results in higher productivity.

Related to this is the concept of self-efficacy – the belief a person or group has their competence to deal with difficult or new tasks and to manage difficulties in challenging situations. A leader wants followers with high self-efficacy as they are more likely to attempt challenging and difficult tasks, they are goal-orientated and they often develop a deep interest and sense of commitment in their work. Once they’ve started a task, people with high self efficacy are persistent and more likely to persevere than people with low self efficacy.[vi] Individuals with high self-efficacy are also more motivated and are often high performers.[vii] One of the ways in which an individual or a group’s self-efficacy can be improved, is through verbal persuasion – once again a clear leadership communication function.[viii]


Research had also shown that effective leader communication results in higher organizational identification in followers. Organizational identification can be defined as the degree to which an individual identifies with an organization’s culture, values and goals.[ix] The advantage here is that the closer a follower identifies with the organization; the more likely he or she is to make decisions and behave in manners that benefit the organization.[x] This means that followers with high organizational identification are more loyal to their organizations and can be trusted to act in a manner that would be in the best interest of the organization and the fulfillment of its goals.

The final positive effect of efficient leadership communication we need to mention (there are more), is that it contributes to unity and cohesiveness in groups and teams.[xi] As such, cohesiveness refers to the tendency of members in a group to stick together and remain united while pursuing their goals and purposes.[xii] Greater cohesiveness and unity in a group or team has several advantages, of which increased individual and group performance is perhaps the most desirable from an organizational perspective.[xiii]  Cohesiveness can be increased by factors such as similarities among members, common encounters, necessity or shared fate, group attraction, member contentment, the size of the group size, self- exposure, trust, acceptance, membership stability, and general leadership. Keeping these factors in mind, leaders can use communication as an all encompassing instrument to increase group cohesiveness by communicating messages that create and sustain cohesion.[xiv]

It’s a Matter of Style

By now the importance of effective communication should be clear, which prompts the question: why don’t all of us simply communicate in the same clear and efficient way which everyone else will understand? Why does some of us go into the finest detail when we tell a story, while others just provide the skimpiest (and to them) essential facts? Why do some leaders bark instructions while others engage in long discussions with their followers?

The answer lies in the uniqueness of each individual. Several studies have shown that our communication style – the manner in which we prefer to communicate or be communicated to – is closely related to our individual personality and the way we think or process information.[xv] It logically follows that having some degree of insight into our own personality and the personalities of the people we communicate with, would increase our understanding of what others are trying to communicate to us, help us to adapt our communication style according to the situation or audience, and also gives us a better understanding of how others perceive us.

Using personality as the departure point, communication styles had been divided into four groups – controllers (task-orientated individuals who are focused on the end results and who likes to take-charge), collaborators (relationship-orientated, easy-going individuals who enjoy working with people and prefer to work toward reaching consensus), analyzers (logical thinkers who prefer to work on their own and who need time to process information and come to a conclusion), and analyze socializers (outgoing and people-orientated individuals who enjoy regular change and working in groups).[xvi] Others had proposed that to understand communication styles and become more effective communicators, leaders need to recognize their own and their follower’s “thinking styles” which are related to the quadrant (left cerebral, right cerebral, left limbic, or right limbic) of an individual’s brain that is dominant when receiving, storing, and processing information.[xvii] However, perhaps the most user-friendly classification of communication styles divides people into five groups (synthesists, idealists, pragmatists, analysts, and realists) based on how we perceive, process, communicate and use information (see table 1).[xviii]

Table 1: Communication Styles




Interested in change; good at focusing on underlying assumptions; but may evoke unnecessary conflict. When communicating, they are speculative - asks “what if”-questions; frequently jumps from one topic to another; argues about theories; contemplate new ideas; and generally talks a lot.


Have a holistic view; is good at articulating goals and focusing on relationships; but may hesitate to make decisions. In communication they are good listeners; often talk about long term goals, values and ideals; are careful not to upset; are receptive; and often sounds disillusioned by others.


Have a diverse approach and can devise tactics and strategies to reach their goals; but may rush to attain gratification and ignore long-term consequences. When communicating they often focus on rapid and immediate results; are quick-witted and fast-thinking; are good-humored and cheerful; are adaptive; and are mostly only interested in what happens in the short term.


Have a deductive view and is interested to find “the best” scientific solution; good at planning; but can sometimes over-plan and may ignore values. When communicating they insist on technical data; asks comprehensive and tangible questions; are reluctant to change from what proved to work in the past; are often prescriptive; and use long, well-formulated sentences.


Follow a practical approach; focuses on facts and results, can provide drive and momentum; but may ignore disagreement and over-simplify solutions. In communication they are direct and forthright; can seem impatient and restless, tend to interrupt others, are often corrective; and can present own opinions as if they were facts.

Communicating is More Than Just Talking

The chances are good that you have recognized elements of your own style and communication preferences in one of the five groups. Although that might be helpful, there are several pillars of effective communication of which we all need to be aware on our personal communication-improvement journey. Evaluate your own communication behaviour against these important construct of effective communication:

Are You Always Engaged or Truly Engaging?

All communication – whether by e-mail or face-to-face – is based on a relationship between the communicator and the receiver of the message. Leaders who understand the value of personal relationships with their followers are able to use these relationships as a platform for more effective communication. Stronger relationships lead to increased trust between the two parties, and this enhances communication and understanding. In this electronic era, leaders should still create opportunities for regular personal interaction with their followers.[xix] Personal interaction not only strengthens the relationship, it also enhances the follower’s sense of being “valued” and stimulates “upward communication, thus creating more openness and honesty between follower and leader.[xx]

One construct of good leader-follower relationships is a concept known as “immediacy” - communication that strengthens the physical or psychological closeness and nonverbal interaction between two individuals.[xxi] This boils down to communicating in a way that creates rapport and mutual liking between you and another individual or group of individuals. Both verbal and nonverbal means of communication could be used here, including keeping eye contact, leaning towards the person, touching (be very careful here), sitting close to the person, speaking in an animated way, and smiling at the person. It has been established that by displaying immediacy, leaders strengthen their relationship with their followers, while also creating a more positive work environment and increasing their followers’ job satisfaction.[xxii]

However, during leader-follower interaction the relationship should not overshadow the content of the message. A strong correlation exists between effective communication and both relational- and task-orientated leadership. This means that leaders who communicate well manage to maintain strong personal relationships with their followers, while still ensuring that the content or task is communicated in a clear and efficient manner.[xxiii]

Are You Merely Hearing or Really Listening?

Relational leadership – a term generally referring to transformational and servant leadership – strongly relies on the personal influence that the leader has on guiding the follower’s decisions. As in any relationship, communication is a two-way affair, and this makes listening a pillar – if not THE pillar – of effective communication.[xxiv] Effective listeners know that they need to do more than just “hear” – they give their undivided attention to the communicator while evaluating his or her words as well as nonverbal messages.[xxv] Leaders who are good listeners show concern and respect for the values, needs, goals and opinions of their followers. This promotes the free and open exchange of ideas and information, it stimulates creativity, it again improves job satisfaction and performance, and it strengthens the trust-based relationship between leader and follower.[xxvi]

Are You Listening with Eyes Wide Open?

Communication consists of much more than mere spoken words or letters on a screen. Nonverbal communication consist of gestures, body positions, facial expressions and other physical reactions that may either support or contradict what the person is saying in words. [xxvii] By being aware of your own nonverbal behaviour as well as that of those with whom you are communicating, it is possible to increase the effectiveness of your communication. For instance, note how people often subconsciously mimic certain mannerisms, postures and facial expressions of a group or key members in the group. This is known as nonverbal mirroring or the “Chameleon Effect”, and it strengthens mutual liking, rapport, and affiliation between individuals.[xxviii] Observing people’s mimicry reactions provides some helpful clues to their personality and emotional reaction to what is being communicated. For instance, individuals with a higher empathy level show significantly more mimicry reactions than those with a lower empathy level, while people who agree with what is being said are also more likely to mimic than those who disagree.[xxix]

Are You Giving Instructions or Providing Direction?

Everyone knows that vision casting and goal setting are crucial leadership functions. Leaders who are able to communicate their vision effectively, gain the confidence of their followers, create momentum and are ultimately more likely to succeed.[xxx] However, this will not happen if the vision is vague and the goals uncertain. Studies have shown that followers perform better when leaders communicate goals in a clear and highly directive style.[xxxi] As a leader, you need to communicate exactly what needs to be done, who should do it and how it should be done. This does not imply that you should be prescriptive and authoritarian – on the contrary – but it is your responsibility to make sure everyone knows what is to be done and what is expected of them.

Improve Your Voice

So where do you start if you want to improve your communication effectiveness? Apart from working on your inter-personal communication relationships and a few other pointers you should have picked up by now, here are some helpful hints:

Tell Them Stories

Throughout history and right through the realism of the modern age and the relativism post-modernism, stories have been helpful and effective communication mediums. Unless you’re dealing with an extreme analytic communicator, most people prefer real-life applications to complicated data or abstract ideologies. M
etaphors and analogies help people to “see” the picture of what you’re trying to share with them, and this increases their ability to both understand and remember it for longer.[xxxii]

Learn to Really Listen

I’m only repeating this point because it is so important – learning to really listen might be the single most valuable communication skill you can acquire. Focus on the person, confirm that you have understood them correctly, process the information, and then react accordingly. As a leader your example could help to create a “listening environment” or culture in your group or organization – something that would be beneficial to everyone in the long run.[xxxiii]

Read the Signs

Giving attention to people’s nonverbal communication will help you to clarify their messages while also providing insight into their real response to what we are communicating with them.[xxxiv] Practice your ability to understand what people are saying with their gestures, facial expressions and body positions. Keep in mind that while there are some universal nonverbal signs, individuals may also express themselves in different manners according to their personalities, culture and circumstances.

Adapt to Your Audience

You do not need to be a psychologist or communication professional to develop good communication skills. Paying attention to the way other people communicate, will give you an indication of how you should adapt your own communication style to have maximum impact on them. If someone is direct and forthright, be direct and keep to the point. On the other hand, when dealing with someone who is analytical, be prepared to provide them with all the available information and give them enough time to “buy in” or come to a decision.
[xxxv] Also keep in mind that other factors such as cultural background, level of education, age, circumstances, and even emotional state could determine people’s preferred communication style at any time. Be perceptive and adjust the manner, and if needed the medium, in which you communicate with them.[xxxvi]

Speak Mandarin in English

Living in a globalized society where nearly everybody on earth can reach just about everybody else at any time and at any place, requires leaders to have the appropriate communication skills. The giant leap in global communication technology not only enables us to stay in touch with our relatives on a sheep farm in Australia – it has also completely revolutionized the way the world does business and interacts across borders and continents. Radically improved global communication had helped to bring products, markets and consumers closer together in an environment where change is the only constant and where visionary leadership rather than traditional management efficiency is often an organization’s greatest asset.[xxxvii]

This means that organizational leaders need to be skilled communicators not only within their own organizational milieu, but also in the global setting. They need to be able to communicate cross-culturally, cross-genders, and cross-generations. To be competent cross-cultural communicators, leaders need cultural awareness and understanding, knowledge of the local language (including its nonverbal aspects), and the motivation to apply their cultural awareness to establish global business relationships.[xxxviii]

Stripped bare, communication is the sharing of outward symbols (in the form of text, sounds or gestures) which represent certain mental interpretations or intentions (messages). However, symbols have different meanings in different cultures, and therefore you need to learn the meaning of the symbols in the “other” culture before you can effectively communicate inter-culturally. If this does not happen, the results are often vagueness of meaning, uncertainty and limited understanding – all of which could result in communication breakdown and ultimately in leadership failure.[xxxix] However, this ethnocentric approach (focusing on the differences in communication patterns between cultures) have a number of pitfalls you need to avoid.  In our global village, fusion of cultures often occur, making it dangerous to assume that people of a particular culture share the same traits, needs and approaches in communication. By stereotyping the culture, there is a risk of condescending and ignoring the uniqueness of each individual while also ignoring the fact that communication is always situational or context sensitive in nature. This is especially applicable in technologically developed environments.[xl]

To conclude - leaders communicating in a global or inter-cultural environment clearly need to be culturally aware and sensitive. However, they also need to become constant learners – not relying on their existing assumptions about or experience of other cultures or cultural stereotypes. As such, they need to apply the principles of evidence based management and be lead by a combination of common sense and evidence, continuously seeking new information and insight to keep updating their assumptions, knowledge, and communication skills.[xli]

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[ii] Howard, A. & Wellins, R. S (2008) Global Leadership Forecast 2008/2009. Retrieved on August 13, 2009, from p. 9.

[iii] Howard, A. & Wellins, R. S (2008) Global Leadership Forecast 2008/2009. p. 10.

[iv] Madlock, P. E. (2008). The link between leadership style, communicator competence, and employee satisfaction. Journal of Business Communication, 45 (1), 61-78. Madlock, P. E. (2008). Employee satisfaction: An examination of supervisors’ communication competence. Human Communication, 11 (1), 87–100. Holladay, S. J., & Coombs, W. T. (1993). Communication visions: An exploration of the role of delivery in the creation of leader charisma. Management Communication Quarterly, 6, 405-427.

[v] Ghazzawi, I. (2008). Job satisfaction antec,edents and consequences: A new conceptual framework and research agenda. The Business Review, Cambridge, 11 (2), 1-10. Ghazzawi, I., & Smith, Y. S. (2009). Crafting the whole employee: Job satisfaction, job commitment, and faith. The Business Review, Cambridge, 12 (2), 300-309.  Sarmiento, R., Beale, J., & Knowles, G. (2007). Determinants of performance amongst shop-floor employees: A preliminary investigation. Management Research News, 30 (12), 915-927.  Moynihan, D. P. & Pandey, S. K. (2007). Finding workable levers over work motivation: Comparing job satisfaction, job involvement, and organizational commitment. Administration & Society, 39 (7), 803-832.  Leach, F. J., & Westbrook, J. D. (2000). Motivation and job satisfaction in one government research and development environment. Engineering Management Journal, 12 (4), 3-8.

[vi] Luszczynska. A., & Gutie´rrez-Don˜a, B. (2005). General self-efficacy in various domains of human functioning: Evidence from five countries. International Journal of Psychology, 40 (2), 80–89.  Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998). Retrieved on July 29, 2009, from

[vii] Bandura, A., & Locke, E. A. (2003). Negative self-efficacy and goal effects revisited. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88 (1), 87–99.  Seo, M., and Ilies, R. (2009). The role of self-efficacy, goal, and effect in dynamic motivational self-regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109, 120–133. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). Work motivation and satisfaction: Light at the end of the tunnel.  Psychological Science, 1 (4), 240-246.

[viii] Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84 (2), 191-215.

[ix] Myers, S. A., & Kassing, J. W. (1998). The relationship between perceived supervisory communication behaviors and subordinate organizational identification. Communication Research Reports, 15 (1), 71-81.  Maneerat, N., Hale, C. L., & Singhal, A. (2005). The communication glue that binds employees to an organization: A study of organizational identification in two Thai organizations. Asian Journal of Communication, 15 (2), 188-/214.

[x] Maneerat, N., Hale, C. L., & Singhal, A. (2005). The communication glue that binds employees to an organization: A study of organizational identification in two Thai organizations. Asian Journal of Communication, 15 (2), 188-/214.

[xi] Diaz-Saenz, H., & Raile, A. (2007). How leaders communication contributes to cohesive teams in organizations. Conference Paper for the National Communication Association. Retrieved on July 12, 2009, from

[xii] Diaz-Saenz, H., & Raile, A. (2007). How leaders communication contributes to cohesive teams in organizations. Conference Paper for the National Communication Association. Retrieved on July 12, 2009, from p. 3.

[xiii] Chang, A., & Bordia, P. (2001). A multidimensional approach to the group cohesion–group performance relationship. Small Group Research, 32 (4), 379-405. Griffith, J., & Vaitkus, M. (1999). Relating cohesion to stress, strain, disintegration, and performance An organizing framework. Military Psychology, 11 (1), 27-55.

[xiv] Diaz-Saenz, H., & Raile, A. (2007). How leaders communication contributes to cohesive teams in organizations. Conference Paper for the National Communication Association. Retrieved on July 12, 2009, from p. 5.

[xv] Bruvold, W. H., Parlette, N., Bramson, R. M., & Bramson, S. J. (1983). An investigation of the item characteristics, reliability, and validity of the inquiry mode questionnaire. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 43 (2), 483-493. Herrmann, N. (1982). A bulletin special: The creative brain. NASSP Bulletin, 66, 31-36. Herrmann, N. (1981). The creative brain. Training and Development Journal, October, 11-16. Golian, L. M. (1999). Thinking style preferences among academic librarians: Practical tips for effective work relationships, ACRL, April, 1-8.  Dwyer, K. (2007). Using thinking styles to assist communication. Retrieved on August 26, 2009, from

[xvi] Hank, S. (2009). Communication styles: What is your impact on others? Professional Safety, May, 22-25.

[xvii] Dwyer, K. (2007). Using thinking styles to assist communication. Retrieved on August 26, 2009, from Herrmann, N. (1982). A bulletin special: The creative brain. NASSP Bulletin, 66, 31-36. Herrmann, N. (1981). The creative brain. Training and Development Journal, October, 11-16.