My career prior to coaching was in the consultancy business: an industry built entirely on turning problems into projects. And I’ve always appreciated the many lessons just that stance alone has taught me. Including:
- Not to fear problems, but to welcome them and revel in their challenge.
- To understand that solutions cannot exist without the problems to fuel them.
- To know that within every problem lies inspiration for great creativity.
And what it also taught me is that essential to any high performing leader’s toolkit is the ability to communicate openly and honestly in the face of challenge.
All leadership faces challenge and uncertainty. That’s the function of a leader: to lean into the status quo. And at those times, a leader with a clear and open approach – as demonstrated in their calm, competent communication style – is worth everything to the organisation.
Here’s a checklist of 5 behaviours that you and your team can model if you want to master the key leadership competency of clear and open communication at times of challenge.
1. Make it safe
- All quality communication is predicated on there being a safe space for communication delivery and receipt. So Step One is to make it safe for those around you to share “bad” news.
- We do that by talking about and underscoring how we handle those situations when we’re not in crisis mode; and by slowing down, listening and asking quality questions when we are in crisis mode.
- Know that safety has been lost when those around you have dropped into communications silence (withdrawing, avoiding, masking – or just plain silence!) or communications “violence” (controlling, labelling, attacking).
2. Make it welcome
- If we’re successful in Step One (making it safe), it will quickly become clear to all that, far from disliking “bad” news, you welcome it. Have your actions and communications remind everyone that, in a professional setting, we’d all rather know, than ignore-and-hope-it-goes-away. This also helps keep the communications timely – a crucial characteristic, when it comes to bad news.
- Again, be talking about this stance of “welcoming bad news” at the times when you’re not in crisis. Without the pressure of a challenging situation, we can all agree and commit to these good behaviours. And when the (challenging) times do come, we’ll want to be consistent with our agreements and commitments.
- Encourage those around you to welcome the difficult truths by modelling the good leadership habit of continually asking the tough question. Demonstrate to all that the more we challenge our solution, the better outcome we’ll have.
3. Keep it solutions-focused
- Talking in great depth about the problem first only ever finds more problems. Yes, we want the facts of the situation. But becoming overly-fixated on the problem just gives attention to those circuits in the brain. Soon, our filters can see nothing but downward-spiralling problems.
- The antidote: ask questions about the solution. Get you and your team deeply connected to the goal that’s to be achieved. Resist the temptation to list the great many problems – or indeed, start “solutionising” too soon. Do all that when the goal is clear.
4. Keep it actionable
- There are many opportunities at work for the situation to become a talking shop. And it’s understandable – we’re social creatures, we like to connect, we like to be heard. Throw in a little ego and office politics to boot and the conversation can often outlive the outcome.
- So as a rule of thumb: always be looking to make your communications actionable. Ask “now what?” With all this good discussion, what do we want to do now that moves the problem/project forward? This doesn’t only get us to action; it keeps the exchange only as long as it needs to be – which is important at times of challenge when time is often short.
- And a final thought: this statement “make it actionable” is a great little mantra to have in mind for so many different communications. Giving feedback. Delegating tasks. Delivering training. Setting direction. Experiment with adding an “actionable” element to all your communications and see what it does for you.
5. Find the opportunity for learning
- To complete the behaviours that encourage and sustain a culture of open and honest communications, continually look for the learning. Support your team to take everything they can away from the event and to play it into future happenings.
- Encouraging a culture of learning is a powerful and accumulative asset for any project, team or organisation. And if you scroll back up this list of behaviours, you’ll notice how the idea of “learning” can be used to support the other 4 behaviours that lead to open and honest communications.
- Pair this idea of “finding the learning” with the idea of “making it actionable”. Have the follow-on actions include something that embeds the learning and improves future situations.
Try modelling these 5 behaviours and see what difference it makes in promoting clear and open communications – and a whole shift in the thinking, when it comes to “problems”! – in your organisation.