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Loosen Up Your Communication Style

If leaders want to connect with all of their staff, they need to combine three styles of effective communication: emotional, factual, and symbolic. Here's how to leverage all three.

The head of the hospital had called the meeting. He wanted all employees to understand that the organization had to find new revenue to survive. Throughout his talk, the administrator cited an impressive array of numbers to prove that growth was essential. But later, as employees filed out of the room, one of the nurses was heard to mutter, "Yeah, well, cancer grows, too."

What did that leader do wrong? He had marshaled reams of data; he had his facts cold. But in his focus on the factual, he neglected the other two channels of leadership communication—the emotional and the symbolic. If you want to lead people, you have to communicate via all three channels, since people receive messages in different ways. Too many people are one-dimensional communicators—and don't realize they aren't getting their messages across.

For instance, in a 2002 survey of 1,104 employees around the country, 86 percent of the respondents said that their bosses thought they were great communicators. But only 17 percent said their bosses actually communicated effectively. "We thought there was a communications gap, but it turned out we were totally wrong. It's not a gap; it's a chasm," says Boyd Clarke, who includes the survey in his book The Leader's Voice: How Your Communication Can Inspire Action and Get Results! (SelectBooks, 2002).

Relying on facts alone, despite their power, is a doomed strategy.
— Theodore Kinni

Clarke and coauthor Ron Crossland studied hundreds of leadership messages in various media to rank the best practices in corporate communication. "When your intent is to move people to action, to help them understand and deepen their appreciation and gain more insight and more passion about their work, you have got to have all three: facts, emotion, and symbols," says Crossland, vice chairman of tompeterscompany.

This is not to say that all channels have to be used in equal measure. For one thing, there's overlap between the emotional and symbolic channels, because symbols are shorthand ways of conveying both emotion and meaning. And for another, facts—particularly financial data that may have been hidden from employees before—have enormous power.

But relying on facts alone, despite their power, is a doomed strategy. When a leader communicates via only one channel, the receiver is forced to make sense of the information by filling in the blanks on his own—and the meaning that the receiver creates is often not what the communicator intended. The lesson, says Clarke, is that "adding the other two channels in the appropriate ways at the appropriate times dramatically increases the chance of the communication getting through."

Here are some ways you can maximize the power of your communications by ensuring that you use all three channels.

Don't recite the facts—interpret them
"In business, we worship at the altar of data," says Crossland. But the factual channel "is not about data; it's about interpretation." This highlights a common communication disconnect: managers recite the data instead of interpreting it. "People don't want a recitation," Crossland says. "What they want to know is, ‘What sense do you make out of this data? What is the conclusion? Do you have a logical flow in your thought process? And can we see that?'"

Use emotion to amplify communication
"I was a numbers-only guy," says Dave Browne, CEO of Family Christian Stores, a 325-store religious products retailer (Grand Rapids, Mich.). "Absolutely. My background initially was ‘Let the facts drive decisions.'"

The numbers had served Browne well. At age thirty, he became CEO at LensCrafters, a growing optical retail chain founded in 1983 on the concept of one-stop, one-hour eyeglasses. And that was when Browne realized that the facts were standing in his way.

"On their own, facts are capable of delivering one level of results," he says. "But they are also detrimental in terms of holding you back from a higher level of results." To lead the company to those higher levels, the young CEO needed to "communicate on a much higher plane, emotionally and with vision," he says.

After he recognized his problem, Browne decided to start an off-site meeting with 100 key executives by apologizing for his narrow, bottom-line-only focus. "I told them I was not happy, and that I had a pretty good sense I was making quite a few of them unhappy," he says. "I said I wanted to spend more time looking at ways to add value to lives, where to add value to the customer experience, and to act more like a true servant-leader than a manager."

For a brand to be successful, he says, employees have to live it.
— Steve Koonin,
Turner Network Television

Browne tapped into what Clarke and Crossland define as the emotional channel of the leader's voice. There are two components to this channel. The first, the communicator's ability to genuinely and appropriately share his emotions, is one that many business leaders find uncomfortable. "It was frightening," says Browne, "because the picture I had of a CEO is that there was not a whole lot of vulnerability. And when you start sharing dreams and fears and talking about things at an emotional level you are risking vulnerability. But it's worth it."

Storytelling is an important tool for leaders who want to connect on an emotional level, Clarke says. "Personal stories tell followers what the leader feels and why they feel that way."

The second component of the emotional channel is connecting with constituents' emotions. "Imagine a CEO standing up and saying, ‘Our goal is 32 percent increased profits for next year,'" says Clarke. And he gives the strategies to get there. Some people in the audience are excited, some are angry, and at least a few are frightened. If a leader can speak to those emotional threads in ways that show that he understands and genuinely cares, then this wall that is so easily built up between constituents and leaders starts to crumble, he says.

Leverage the power of symbols
Symbols are powerful because they fuse emotion and logic into a sort of communications shortcut that employees see and instantly understand. Take the case of Turner Network Television (TNT).

"For twelve years, TNT had not been branded. It had been what is called a ‘general entertainment network' where anything could go," says Steve Koonin, the network's executive vice president and general manager.

Launched in 1988 to capitalize on Ted Turner's purchase of the MGM/UA film library, TNT had gained a solid audience by delivering a varied mix of programming. The problem was that by 2000, over 200 competing channels had emerged, and TNT, which didn't stand for any one entertainment segment, had a tough time differentiating itself with viewers.

Koonin, a senior marketing executive at Coca-Cola, was hired to create the network's first-ever strategic brand positioning. With his help, the network decided that TNT would become the channel to turn to for drama.

But before he could sell the "We Know Drama" brand to viewers and advertisers, Koonin needed to sell it internally. For a brand to be successful, he says, employees have to live it. "We had to do more than just say this is what we are now and put a logo on a board. Because if you don't live it and you don't believe it, you won't be it."

For instance, TNT's internal version of television's Emmy Awards, the Annual Drammy Awards, are now a fixture at the network. The first Most Dramatic Meeting award went to a pregnant vice president whose water broke in a staff meeting.

In an eye-opening symbol of management's commitment to the new brand that made a huge impact among employees, Koonin approved the cancellation of the top-rated program in all of basic cable, TNT's WCW Monday Nitro, because professional wrestling did not fit the new brand.

The results of TNT's branding initiative were dramatic. The reprogrammed network was rolled out to the public in June 2001. By the end of that year and again in 2002, TNT was ranked first among basic cable channels in delivery of adults aged eighteen to forty-nine and twenty-five for fifty-four in prime time.

"There are a thousand ways to communicate symbolically," adds Clarke. "There are ceremonies and awards and logos. There are drawings and designs and mementos. Metaphors can be very powerful symbols. Songs and poems and jokes and quotes, all of these things can be very good symbolic communication."

Reprinted with permission from "Is One-Dimensional Communication Limiting Your Leadership?" Harvard Management Communication Letter, May 2003

Theodore Kinni is a Virginia-based writer. He can be reached at hmcl@hbsp.harvard.edu

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