by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Authentic leadership depends on authentic communication. This applies whether speaking before large groups, making presentations, conducting meetings, or engaging in one-on-one conversations with peers, direct reports, superiors, or the constituents and publics you serve. As I’ve coached leaders at different levels, mediated disputes involving leaders, and facilitated leader development activities, I have observed and sought to counsel individuals on aspects of their communication and interactions that may adversely impact their effectiveness as authentic, trusted leaders. Do they value authentic communication as an essential component of effective leadership? If so, I would ask them, as I ask you:
Are you credible? How do you represent yourself before others and how do others perceive you based on what they know of you and through the facts, observations, and information you present? What if you were on trial or testifying in court? Rules of evidence and trial procedure ensure that what is brought forth for the “record” is “admissible” or, in other words, credible. Do you have a record of personal credibility, including an established reputation for fairness, objectivity, trustworthiness, and truthfulness? Are your views, assertions, and requests credible, backed by facts and information from reliable sources, relevant to the issues at hand, and not distorted, exaggerated, or based on hearsay or conjecture? Based on how others perceive your credibility and the credibility of your information and assertions, they will either deem your engagement with them as “admissible” or reject it, leaving them reluctant to interact with you or accept your entreaties in the future.
Are you attentive to your message and how it is conveyed? Always attend to the content of your message, ensuring the appropriate choice of words and avoiding innuendos, sarcasm, and other underlying meanings that obscure the true meaning you wish to convey. Others should be able to rely on your message at face value and not have to make guesses. Seek to be transparent and congruent in your communication, which means ensuring your words and the meaning behind them are consistent with the actions and behaviors you demonstrate and on which others can rely. Watch your non-verbal and para-verbal language to ensure it is consistent and congruent with your words and upfront message. Also, watch your emotions and how, or whether, to express feelings of anger, confusion, fear, disappointment, and other common reactions. While emotion has a place, communication breaks down when unconstrained emotion distorts the message, controls or manipulates the communication exchange, or otherwise prevents others from understanding and trusting you or wanting to engage further with you. Lastly, speak plainly and avoid language choices that get in the way of simple, comprehensible speech, such as political correctness and technical, legal, and academic jargon.
Have you checked ulterior motives, ego, and biases at the door? Others can readily perceive when we are not sincere and come with hidden agendas and ulterior motives apart from legitimate interests for fostering productive relationships and achieving common goals. Our egos can also get in the way, causing us to be defensive in order to protect ourselves from threats to our egos. This often translates into defensive posturing and becoming argumentative, rather than more trusting and collaborative. If we can’t manage to clear our biases and filters that cause us to make unfair and inaccurate judgments about others and their values and beliefs, we diminish our ability to hear and understand their perspectives and to support them. You can’t “fake it” and “hide” your true motives and internal thought processes. Don’t underestimate others’ ability to perceive your insincerity or be surprised when they become reticent to interact with you in a trusting manner.
Are you respectful of others and open to their messages and responses? Authentic leaders engage dialogue and collaboration, not in issuing authoritative commands or pushing personal agendas that lack input from those whom they expect to implement their whims. In promoting dialogue, we listen and honor what others share and their responses to our statements and requests as much as we assert our own perspectives. Ineffective leaders are often reactive and at times emotional, failing any attempt to understand the concerns and perspectives of others and often arguing over or talking them down. Effective leaders afford respect in the listening process by engaging in empathic responses that reflect on and acknowledge what they heard. They further welcome direct challenges to their views and perspectives out of an interest in improving upon decisions mutually reached. Even when they disagree or can’t honor others’ interests, they are transparent about their reasoning and respectful of those with whom they disagree. Direct reports, peers, and others who interact with such leaders will feel that, even in the midst of strong disagreement and over matters that didn’t go their way, the leader maintained respect, honored them, and retained their confidence and trust.
In previous articles, I have shared various tools and strategies for effective communication and leadership. Consider these tools and strategies, as well as many others available to you. Beyond tools and strategies, though, it requires humility, openness to feedback, honest self-reflection, and constant practice and engagement with others to test and refine your communication and interactions to be the authentic leader you aspire to be.