At least 50% of the success that anyone could hope to achieve, in any field where humans are involved, will be determined by their ability to relate and communicate effectively with other people.
Why Communication Matters
Every organization where humans are involved is a sophisticated network of complex conversations. The quality of discourse determines the health of the organization.
The language, social norms and culture of an organization play an important part in creating an environment that makes communication more or less productive. Further the CEO often sets the organizational climate, communication style, and the social contracts that executives make with each other while moving the organization towards the company’s strategic objectives. The impact of all these is felt significantly more strongly at smaller, early stage startups.
Nevertheless, self-determining professionals who are dedicated to performing at the highest levels of responsibility and leadership will benefit from the active development of their own communication skills. These skills, not taught at even the top MBA programs, have more to do with how we relate to each other as individuals.
Here are the two most common skills of the top 1% of A+ executive talent:
1: Active Listening
Active listening means listening fully, with the intent to understand first, rather than to be understood.
Most of us are not skilled listeners. The research says that we only remember 50% of what we hear, and sometimes less. If we miss the nuanced variables of tone, inflection, volume, and body language, or fail to read the emotional data through communication, the effects on performance, which often rely on team insights, could be quite poor.
To become an active listener, you must consciously cultivate focus and being present. Experts suggest that you make eye contact, and frequently demonstrate that you are paying attention, by nodding, smiling, and otherwise evidencing a clear reaction to what you hear. Empathic listening improves understanding and builds trust. Hone and fine-tune your comprehension by repeating what you hear: Responses beginning with “I’m hearing that ______” and “I understand that you’re saying _____” give people a chance to correct and enhance your understanding.
One warning: If you catch yourself thinking about what to say next, while someone is still talking, you are not practicing active listening!
2: Performance Feedback
Being a top-performing communicator means being able to give and receive feedback.
Too many companies rely on outmoded “performance review” systems, in which feedback is only given and received at set intervals. This makes feedback something to dread, rather than an essential part of motivating top performance. (My disdain for typewriters, corporate performance reviews and fax machines – vestiges from another era – will be something I explore in another post.)
And while nothing is better than direct, open and honest feedback done on a one-to-one basis in person, with the invention of email, “agile performance feedback” is now possible. Giving and receiving feedback should be part of every day. That means regularly checking in – pitching and catching, giving and receiving feedback where and when it is necessary, with an eye toward rewarding specific behaviors and setting goals together. This is a far superior model.
What is most important about active listening and the giving & receiving of performance feedback is the effect on trust, team building and both individual and collective team performance. Letting your team know what you need and why you appreciate their work builds a sense of real partnership and helps you to stay on the same page as you build and execute the tactics in the direction of your strategic outcomes. Being clear about accountability and ownership – both yours and that of your teammates – is crucial.
Feedback is not punishment. It is not something to fear. Feedback is how you form your blueprint for excellence.
We all succeed with the help of other people. Learning to actively listen and communicate feedback with the smart, capable people with whom we surround ourselves is essential to becoming a high performing leader that people look up to.
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