How HR can help leaders communicate better

13 Aug 2019 By Mark Schenk

Senior staff members who use ‘story style’ language when engaging with their employees build credibility, authenticity and engagement, says Mark Schenk

Corporate communication is broken. We have allowed an enormous imbalance to develop in the way we think about business communication, the way we do and the way we teach it. 

The impact of this imbalance is huge. Corporate communication regularly tops the complaint list in staff engagement survey results and research shows between 80 and 95 per cent of staff don’t understand our strategies. One survey by the Holmes Report put the cost of poor communications at $37bn across the US and UK.

So how can HR professionals help to redress this imbalance? The first step is to realise that when we communicate we have a choice of what language to use. At one end of the communication spectrum is the 'assertion' or 'statement' style of communication. This style can be thought of as the language of technical expertise, commonly employed by technical experts, managers and bureaucrats. It can be very impressive but is generally not very engaging. Even if you are 100 per cent correct, when you use this style you often create a form of resistance. That's because, from the listener's perspective, it feels like you are talking at them – pushing your messages at them.

At the other end of the spectrum is the 'moment' or 'story' style. Stories can be thought of as facts, wrapped in context and delivered with emotion. By wrapping our facts and data within a narrative structure, communicators can be much more engaging, influential, memorable and inspiring. As neurologist Donald Calne said: “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that reason leads to conclusions, while emotion leads to action.”

The language of leadership is understanding how to use both ends of the communication spectrum appropriately – ambidextrous communication. Leaders who can do this can communicate with impact and at the same time, build their authenticity and credibility. However, in business, the overwhelming communication style used is the ‘assertion style’ – the language of technical expertise.

HR professionals can make an enormous contribution to their organisations by helping leaders at all levels incorporate a little more of the ‘language of leadership’ into their communication repertoire. HR can also help leaders understand that talking impressively does not make them engaging, understandable or credible. Most executives self-assess as being effective communicators when in reality they are far from it. 

At a recent workshop I asked three senior executives to take five minutes to outline their company strategy. Each of them self-assessed as being clear, engaging and impactful, but the assessment from their peers was not so favourable – ‘rambling and incoherent’ was the audience feedback.

Executives have relied on the language of technical expertise through consistent promotions, and believe what has served them well in the past will continue to. However, as their roles and responsibilities change the higher they progress, they need a new communication paradigm. They need to move from ‘push’ to ‘pull’ – from statement to story.

The story approach can be applied in many business contexts. Stories are specific and concrete so staff are much more likely to understand our decisions. Using story builds leader credibility and authenticity and is much more engaging and inspiring for staff, which can increase engagement and retention. Turning strategies into strategic stories increases alignment and business performance.

Perhaps the most important way HR professionals can address the communication imbalance is to recognise that story is a skill that all leaders can develop. Helping leaders build their capability to use story purposefully and effectively will help address the current communications imbalance and deliver better business performance.

Mark Schenk is co-founder of Anecdote

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