Leadership Skills: How to Communicate at Work

Leaders must be effective communicators—mediums for communication range from verbal to written and even include non-verbals as well. Keep in mind that there are right ways and wrong ways to communicate. After all, we live in the realities of those around us. We can’t focus on our perception of us. Instead, we need to understand how others perceive our correspondence as useful or not.

Here are some tools you can use to enhance your communication at work.

How leaders speak

Leaders use two primary forms to communicate. First, they use the Bottom Line Up Front approach. Second, they employ formal and informal methods of communication to articulate their message clearly.

BLUF. Previously, I talked about the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) concept. Say the main point first then build. It’s similar to your thesis statement in a school essay. Lead with that in speech as well. James Humes wrote a book called Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln, that talks about using a power opener to an address. A strong opening statement is similar to the BLUF approach. Use the BLUF technique with briefs and meetings as well.

Formal and Informal Communication. Leaders have formal and informal communication, according to Navy Captain (R) David Marquet’s book Turn the Ship Around! True to form, the official channels serve as a standard system of communication for the company. It’s essential for the company/organization to function because it is an efficient communication system. It’s practical to speak the same language across all departments—for example, the U.S. Military shares common symbols for military units. Every military officer knows what an infantry platoon looks like on a map because the military has a common understanding. This formal communication expedites decisions throughout the organization.

Despite its advantages, Formal communication does not suffice for all interactions. Informal communication creates efficiencies within a company/organization as well. Each unit structure needs informal communication to discuss critical affairs within itself. If all communication was formal, then teams could not create efficiencies to improve their output. For example, the Army has a specific way to talk on the radio, formal speech, to give clear commands. However, sometimes it’s easier to use plain-speech to get the point across, especially if the receiver is inexperienced.

How leaders write

Writing is vastly different from speaking. Speakers relate their messages to audiences who rely on verbal and non-verbal cues from the speaker. However, writing must articulate a whole new picture. Whether it’s a casual email or a formal letter, leaders have a couple of methods they employ while writing a message.

Avoid passive language. Be as direct as possible. I still struggle with this often but understand that your bosses have demands on their time. If they can’t discern what you’re trying to say, then your memo isn’t worth their time. Passive language muddies the message that makes it difficult for your bosses to comprehend your message. Use direct language. Here’s an example of a passive followed by the active sentence:

Passive: The file was given to the representative.

Active: Robert gave the file to the representative.

The passive sentence provokes more questions than the active sentence. Who gave the file to the representative? It may send you down an endless train of inquiries from the boss. In contrast, the active sentence cuts off the ‘who’ question and provides context to your writing.

Formal and informal writing. Yes, these apply here, too. Use official memos for correspondence with persons outside of your organization and within. Formal communication represents you as a person and the company for which you work.

A good rule is to re-read what you wrote after writing a formal document. Check for spelling and grammatical errors! Frequently, professionals will forego this step and publish an official report riddled with errors.

Informally, jotting notes or short emails require etiquette as well. Always understand for whom the message is intended. Although you’re using informal speech, maintain your professional bearings as well.

There is a difference between the “To” line and the “CC” line in an email. Yes, this is important. Yes, there is a difference. Pay attention to who goes where. Reserve the “To” line for people who you want to act on the email you’re sending. Those on the “cc” line are people who you want to be informed about the email.

Putting the correct people in the “To” and “cc” line clearly shows what you want from those people. It mitigates confusion about who is actively involved and who just needs to be informed.

A message sent isn’t always a message received

How many emails do you send in one day? Leaders must take responsibility for those with whom they correspond. If they send an email, there’s always a follow-up. Usually, that follow-up is a phone call or a face-to-face conversation. Use this formula because even though you sent that email, chances are your recipient did not read it. If you’re getting one hundred emails each day, then assume they are getting just as many. Ensure your recipient receives your message.

Proper correspondence

If you’re unsure which method of communication to use, understand your preferred means of contact:

Preferred methods of contact

  1. Face to face
  2. Telephone
  3. Email
  4. Text

Refer to the previous paragraph that a message sent isn’t always a message received. Use at least two of these to send a clear message. Remember, you’re operating in your audience’s perspective, not yours. Take responsibility if your recipient did not understand your correspondence.

Special Note for face to face and telephone

The follow up is a formal email to the person. Usually, you’ll add people who are involved in the project if it applies. Sometimes, it’ll be a personal email. You must have a “paper trail” of what you talked about to avoid the “he said, she said” dilemma.

BONUS: Contact list

Organize your contact list. My contact lists usually have the person’s name, title, company, phone number, then email. Get info wherever you can get it. Typically, competent professionals will have signature blocks to their emails. Log that information. It’s useful for the future, no matter how frequently you contact that person.

Conclusion

It’s cliche to say that communication is essential. True. How we use it is the key to getting results. Communication boils down to a few points:

  1. Who are you addressing?
  2. What do you want this person to know?
  3. How can you get that message to them?

Follow these questions. Miscommunication occurs because the sender and the receiver are not taking responsibility for the message itself. Once both understand the importance of the correspondence, then progress can occur.

How do you use effective communication as a leader? Leave your answer in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!

8 thoughts on “Leadership Skills: How to Communicate at Work”

  1. Jason says:

    This is a good Post Robert. People often get confused or misunderstand the differences between management and leadership. As you rightly point out, leaders need to adapt and alter their communication style appropriately and ensure that its on point with any given situation. Its certainly an area where I continue to focus on both personally and professionally. An evolving learning experience but particularly important. Thanks for your thoughts – both informative and reinforcing. Jason.

    1. Robert says:

      Jason,

      You’re right! Management is not leadership but you can use leadership in management. As a leader, it is critical to communicate your message clearly to your teams and bosses alike. Thank you for your comment!

      Robert

  2. C.N. says:

    Thank you so much for this excellent article, Robert! Communication is certainly crucial to being an effective leader. I like how you used the BLUF acronym to describe the best mode of communication-I like for people to get to the point instead of dilly-dallying around. Haha Tell me the objective from the get-go, and we can utilize our time figuring out how to bring it about. I used to have a huge problem with passive language in my speaking and writing, but I have greatly improved in this area, and actually think about active language with every professional sentence that I say/write (some may call it neurotic, but I call it being careful. Haha). Great read! God bless you!

    1. Robert says:

      C.N.

      I use BLUF a lot in my work, especially if I’m talking to my boss or someone senior. It has helped! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for your comment!

      Robert

  3. Simon says:

    I rarely send – or receive for that matter – letters any more, but do you think there are circumstances in the internet era of 2020 when an e-mail is too informal, and a hard copy is necessary?

    1. Robert says:

      Simon,

      Good question! I absolutely believe that formal correspondence is necessary. It’s the same reason that colleges still send acceptance letters in the mail, or why political figures still send/receive physical copies of letters. It shows trust and confidence that the message being sent/received is a legitimate message. It’s about the perception of legitimacy that a physical correspondence sends to its receivers. I appreciate your question, and I hope I answered it well for you. Thank you!

      Robert

  4. Roz Cohn says:

    Hi Robert, An excellent article and valuable info. Thank you!! Best, Roz

    1. Robert says:

      Roz,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Thank you for the comment.

      Robert

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