Leadership communication in the new workplace

Ask almost any employee what’s changed since 2020 and they’ll probably tell you, “EVERYTHING.”

After navigating a pandemic, unsettled work environments, political and social upheaval and now a possible recession, employees and employers are still adjusting to evolving expectations and work arrangements—our new workplace reality.

But one thing has remained constant during the past few years: Employees look to their organization’s leaders for context and confidence. There has never been a greater need for leader communication.

What is leader communication?

Leader communication is distinct from operational communication. Rather than focusing on day-to-day work details, leaders focus on organization-wide issues.

They play a key role in defining the organization’s culture by communicating the company’s mission, vision and values. And they help employees understand the direction of the company by explaining the strategy and painting a clear picture of success.

When leaders are communicating clearly and consistently, they build trust with employees, cultivate confidence in the future of the organization and promote change readiness.

Communicating in the new workplace reality

Most leaders stepped up to the communication challenges we faced during the past few years. They were more accessible and authentic—allowing employees a peek at the person behind the title. They communicated changing expectations with empathy and helped employees focus on things they could control.

But it’s challenging for leaders to remain authentic when they’re juggling so many plates and navigating our new workplace reality. I’m here to help with four key actions for leaders that build their authenticity and help them play their critical communication role:

  1. Be approachable
  2. Provide focus
  3. Encourage participation
  4. Share appreciation

1. Be approachable

Employees want senior leaders who are genuine, not corporate robots who recite words from a piece of paper. While some leaders may not be comfortable showing emotion, the most effective leaders build trust by relating to employees, usually through moments of vulnerability.

While it may come naturally to some leaders, others struggle with being authentic and vulnerable. If a leader is used to being buttoned up, ask them to try one of these simple tactics:

  • Be conversational instead of using corporate jargon. (Hint: Asking an open-ended question is a great way to encourage conversation.)
  • Tell a personal story of challenge or triumph instead of reading a script.
  • Be clear and specific rather than vague.
  • Tell the straight story and don’t sugarcoat.
  • Admit when you don’t know the answer and commit to providing the information when available.

2. Provide focus

When it comes to corporate strategy, employees often tune out. They see strategy as a top-down process and they often have a hard time seeing where they fit. It’s the job of senior leaders to make abstract, high-level information concrete and meaningful.

Help leaders connect the dots for employees by making the corporate strategy less of “This is what we decided,” and more of “This is where the company is headed and how you can contribute.” Here are three approaches:

  • Simplify. Strategy and corporate speak seem to go hand in hand: strategic imperatives, value drivers, aspirations, framework, etc. Just because certain words and phrases are used in the C-suite doesn’t mean leaders need to use them too. For example, “strategic direction” can be conveyed as “how our work will change” and “aspirations” as “five-year goals.” Keep language approachable.
  • Map it. Visuals are the perfect way to communicate complicated content. A graphic that represents all the moving parts of a strategy—a strategy map—specifies how everything works together. For example, show how the strategy supports the vision and how new processes will contribute to the strategy. The best maps make cause-and-effect relationships explicit, so employees can make the connection between actions and results.
  • Engage. To build knowledge, you need to engage employees in dialogue. Encourage interaction about the organization’s goals by setting up spaces, so employees can ask questions, comment or offer ideas. For example, after sharing your strategy map, ask employees how this direction will impact their department or team. What ideas do they have to help the company reach its goals? Post their thoughts for everyone to see.

3. Encourage participation

Remember in-person meetings? Designed correctly, those sessions were great for gathering feedback, generating ideas and connecting team members.

In our new workplace reality, leaders need to find new ways to connect with employees and encourage interaction, whether they’re face-to-face, fully remote or in a hybrid environment.

These interactive touchpoints not only engage employees, but also give teams a place to share their thoughts about what’s going on in the organization and show employees how much you value their input.

How can leaders encourage participation? Try flipping the script on some of your standard employee communication practices:

  • From planning large group in-person meetings to inviting a small number of employees (say, eight) to a 20-minute virtual coffee chat
  • From being available for scheduled meetings only to carving out weekly virtual office hours when anyone can “knock on your door” to chat
  • From facilitating a verbal Q&A session to using a social media tool where employees  submit questions whenever they want

4. Share appreciation

Recognition is crucial to employee engagement. LinkedIn reports that nearly 70% of employees say they would work harder if their efforts were better recognized.

Unfortunately, employers are falling short in delivering the recognition employees crave. While 89% of employees say receiving recognition for performance increases engagement, 45% say they have not been recognized in the last six months, according to a study by EZTrends.

This is another critical role leaders play: motivating employees. Of course, leaders can—and should—use formal recognition programs like annual, quarterly or spot awards. But in today’s workplace reality, it’s more important than ever for leaders to leverage informal recognition. Because every time they interact with employees, leaders have an opportunity to reinforce that employees are appreciated and valued.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Send each member of a team a handwritten note thanking them for their efforts delivering on an initiative.
  • Leave a quick voicemail for an employee who has gone above and beyond.
  • Post a quick shoutout on internal social media channels to provide positive feedback and recognize work being done by an employee or team.
  • Chat with an employee’s direct manager about his/her great work.

It’s always a good time to show employees they are appreciated, no matter what form that recognition takes—whether it’s a simple thank you, a $100 gift card or a crystal trophy.

The bottom line

During the past few years, many leaders intuitively embraced their communication role and made a difference. Now it’s time to use more of that secret sauce—four key ingredients that help leaders remain accessible and authentic:

  • Be approachable
  • Provide focus
  • Encourage participation
  • Share appreciation
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