Avoiding The Top 5 Leadership Communication Blunders

Communication Breakdown

Communication is the most important predictor of a team’s success.  MIT has the data to prove it.  If you lead a team, this should command your attention.

Communication is Key to a Successful Team

“We’ve found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.”

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, leader of  MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, writes about this research in an HBR article, The New Science of Building Great Teams.

Communication. That’s right, it’s more important that intelligence and skill.  Are you maximizing the success of your team through effective communication?

Maybe not!

Take a look at these five common communication blunders – and how to avoid them.

Avoiding The Top 5 Leadership Communication Blunders

1. You are too focused on yourself

You will not get very far in your communication efforts if you are only focused on what you need out of the interaction.  You must start communication by being genuinely interested in others.  Take a moment and reflect on what all parties need from the dialogue.

Dale Carnegie captured this idea in How To Win Friends and Influence People when he wrote: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

What should you do?

  • Don’t interrupt – People will never be heard if you don’t let them speak.
  • Don’t volunteer others – Let people choose for themselves.  It shows you value their autonomy.
  • Seek common ground – Everyone is self- interested. Look for the intersection as a way to create a win – win.

2. You’re keeping your door closed and the emails (or texts) flying

Face it, we frequently default to impersonal communication like email and text messages.

I see emails fly from people who sit 10 feet apart.

In a joint study, “The Psychology of Effective Business Communications in Geographically Dispersed Teams,” Cisco and PearnKandola found that organizational effectiveness can suffer when e-mails go unanswered and team member (or managers) assume the non-responder is a slacker.

The report also stresses that email takes away critical nonverbal clues that make communication effective.

So what should you do?  Think about the best method of communication for your message.  Many times that will be face-to-face communication.

According to Dr. Pentland’s research at MIT:

“The most valuable form of communication is face-to-face.  The next most valuable is by phone or video conference.” 

The most successful teams had the most live communication.  Think about that before you send your next text message.

3. You talk more than you listen

Dialogue is a two-way street.  There is no dialogue if one person does all the talking.  In addition, great listeners show speakers that they have been heard and understood.

So what should you do?

  • Listen effectively – Focus on the speaker, shutting out external and internal noise.
  • Talk and listen in roughly equal measures to others in the conversation.
  • Make room for others to participate.  Ask questions if notice others are quiet or holding back.
  • Don’t become defensive or change the subject with the conversation becomes sensitive.  That is the time to demonstrate that you are hearing and understanding.

This ability to truly listen is so critical that it appears on the Leadership Action Profile (LPI), a 360º assessment tied to The Leadership Challenge, by Kouzes and Posner.

After 25 years of research their findings indicate that an effective leader “Actively listens to diverse points of view.

Make sure that you are as well.

4. You ignore body language and facial expressions

Angry Person

Our nonverbal behaviors—the gestures we make, the way we sit,  how loud we talk, how close we stand, how much eye contact we make—send strong messages.

This is a huge part of communication.

If you want to know how your communication is being received you must interpret the non verbal part of the dialogue.

Are you getting the full picture?

You must be fully present in the conversation to notice and respond to nonverbal cues.  Dr. Paul Ekman, an expert on facial expressions, notes that most expressions are on someone’s face for a few seconds.  This is long enough to recognize if you aren’t distracted by your own thoughts.

So what should you do?

  • What does it mean when someone crosses their arms or blinks repeatedly?  Take the time to learn about non-verbal communication.
  • Resist the urge to spend your mental energy planning your next comment. Pay attention to what you see.  Look for signs that the non-verbals are out of synch with the spoken message.
  • Be aware of your own body language.

 5. You communicate primarily with close confidants

Frequent and open dialogue is key successful teams.    This is evident when you look at the research of Drs. Carew, Kandarian, Parisi-Carew and Stoner.  The created the HPO SCORES Model that presents the six elements evident in every high performing organization.

The very first item in their list is Shared Information and Open Communication.

This model is presented in the book Leading at a Higher Level.

“Sharing information and facilitating open communication build trust and encourages people to act like owners of the organization.  Encouraging dialogue lessens the danger of territoriality and keeps the organization health, agile, flexible and fluid.”

And it yields real business results.  Back at MIT, Dr. Pentland recommended to call center management  that they send agents to break at the same time to increase communication.  The average handle time of calls fell by 20% on low performing teams.

The organization is making the change company wide and they project a $15 million per year productivity increase.  So what should you do?

  • Communicate frequently with all members of the team – solicit ideas and ask questions.
  • Don’t wait for staff meeting.  Spend time communicating informally.  A lot of great, effective communication happens at break or over lunch.
  • Draw ideas from outside the core work group and bring those ideas back to the team.  Get a new conversation going.

In the spirit of great communication, I’d love to hear your thoughts!  What are you doing to promote good conversations on your team?  Do you feel that everyone is participating in the dialogue?  Do you think people are both speaking and listening?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Melissa Lanier

Melissa Lanier leads Global Talent Management for an S&P SmallCap 600 Firm
She is driven to build High Performing Cultures Aligned to Strategy
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6 responses to “Avoiding The Top 5 Leadership Communication Blunders

    • Enjoyed the article…I often wonder whatever happened to the ‘good old’ days when managers talked with their teams…


  1. What a great list of blunders. And, they are all so easy to fall into when you are busy, tired and under pressure. Requires tremendous awareness to be an exceptional communicator. Thanks for bringing this L2L article to our attention.


  2. Thanks do much. I agree that good communication requires that you be intentional and that is so hard to do when you are stressed or tired.


  3. Talking more than listening is a perennial problem for many leaders. When confronted with this observation they often say ‘yes, I know that and I’ll listen better in future’. What of course happens is that the next time they are in a conversation (if that’s the right word) with someone and they disagree with something they jump in and tell that person just what they ‘need to know’. It takes effort over a long period of time to shift the talking/listening ratio around to something that is far more appropriate for the business as a whole – and the leader too in the long run.


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