Authenticity in leadership communication is pure gold. When people can tell who a leader is by what they say, and how they say it, it builds trust, motivates, and makes others want to follow them. But being a leader sometimes means sharing messages you don’t believe in or communicating decisions you’re not on board with. This puts leaders in a tricky situation. It’s their job to be the voice of the organization. But they need to find their own voice to communicate authentically. It’s important to spend some time tuning into what’s going on with you when you need to communicate a message that is causing internal conflict. And it’s good to put yourself in the shoes of those who will be on the receiving end of the message. With self-awareness and awareness of others as a starting point, there are several ways a leader can move forward in sharing a message about which they don’t fully agree with.
Thinking through Message, Modality, and Moment can provide a framework for approaching difficult messages thoughtfully. But before a leader can tackle the three M’s, it’s important to consider the larger context and the nature of the relationship with the message receiver.
Context – What’s going on in the organization, industry, or larger environment? If the organization is in a state of change or transformation, difficult messages may be more unsettling. On the other hand, if the intent of the communication is to spark change, the way the communication needs to land is a different story. Consider what’s going on in the industry. Are there increased pressures from regulatory challenges or disappearing brands and how might these pressure impact communications. Outside factors such as the economy or a global health crisis may set-the-stage for increased sensitivity. It’s important for a leader to think about the larger context before forging ahead with a challenging message.
Relationship – The relationship a leader has with the message receivers will influence the way communication is received. If there is a high degree of trust or psychological safety present, even difficult messages will be viewed more positively. When there are shared experiences among team members and an increased ability to be candid, managing the message might require less finesse.
With context and relationship under consideration, leaders can tackle the three M’s.
First, spend some time with the message you need to communicate. Understand what part is non-negotiable and where there is some flexibility in the information or decision you need to share. Need to communicate a new hybrid work policy? Make sure you know what parts of the policy can’t change and where you, as a leader, have some discretion. Particularly if you anticipate your message may not be well received by others, it’s important to spend some time getting clear on what is mandatory and where you can shape what’s being said.
Consider how you personally feel about the message and give yourself some time to process those thoughts and feelings before you deliver the message to others. Does the decision align with, or contradict, your values? What are the benefits you see and the concerns you have? Although the luxury of time isn’t always available, whenever possible giving yourself half-a-beat to consider your own emotions so you can manage them appropriately when you are in front of others.
Next, find the part of the message that you do believe in and connect to that. Perhaps you agree the new hybrid policy is difficult for those with a long commute (including you), and you also recognize the value of having team members connecting in person more regularly. You don’t need to become a cheerleader for the approach if you are also struggling with it. In fact, faking enthusiastic support when your team knows you don’t agree will weaken your credibility. But if you can convey genuine support for the intent of the policy (connection) even if you don’t necessarily agree with the how (everyone come on site), you can communicate authentically.
Think through when and where you will communicate difficult information. Can it be shared in a weekly team meeting, or do you need to bring your team together quickly and informally? If the message is a tough one, provide enough time to share-and-discuss. How much is enough? It depends – too little time can feel like you are intentionally rushing to avoid the messiness of the message. Too much time might cause the team to languish in negativity. Likewise, consider the modality for the message. When delivering a message to a group, are there individuals with whom you should have a one-on-one discussion first, so they are not caught by surprise? And who might you need to reach out to afterward to get a reaction to what was heard or where further clarification or support might be needed?
Be mindful of your tone. If your team members know you are delivering a message that is inconsistent with your beliefs, an overly optimistic tone will ring hollow. Likewise, becoming overly Machiavellian shuts down conversation resulting in mistrust and resentment.
As is the case with many aspects of people leadership, determining an appropriate amount of time and the right tone for a message is more art-than-science. Thinking through, practicing, and, where possible getting feedback on your communication, can increase the likelihood your message will come across authentic.
Finally, think about whether the moment is right for a difficult communication. Late on a Friday may-or-may-not be the best time to deliver a tough message if you can’t easily follow up with your team. At the same time, if a communication is going to be emailed from others, pulling folks together so they hear information from you first is wise. The point is to quickly evaluate if the moment is right for delivering that difficult message. Typically, communicating in close proximity to the tough decision is better than waiting. Likewise, determining whether or not the moment is right will be impacted by how much information you have. Getting out there with a tough message can demonstrate a straightforwardness that will increase trust, however, it’s important to evaluate if you have enough. Consider the early days of the pandemic as employees hunkered down in their homes – little was known at the beginning and new information was coming in regularly. Finding the right moment – waiting until you have enough information to share but not waiting so long you leave people guessing – is the fine line to walk in determining the appropriate moment for communication.
Good Communication Means Listening
Finally, it’s equally important, to listen when you communicate, especially when the message is a difficult one. Provide your team with a forum for sharing their concerns or frustrations. Avoid the urge to debate or convince. Read the room and don’t be afraid of calling out the quiet voices, even if you have a sense that you can’t change what is problematic for them. Listen, acknowledge what you are hearing, and be empathetic to their concerns. They may not walk away with a different decision, and you may not walk away any more bought into the message, but at least you can leave people feeling like you heard them.
Traps To Avoid
What should you avoid? It can be tempting to share an unpopular message by separating yourself from others in the organization with a, “I’m not sure why they are doing this but…” approach. But distancing yourself from the rest of the organization is not a good approach. A leader’s role is not just to cascade the message, but to support it. Delivering and simultaneously undermining a decision compromise your credibility as a leader. So does avoiding a difficult message or hiding behind an email when you know a larger conversation is warranted. Worst of all? Toxic positivity. Going overboard to support a message that your team clearly knows you’re not overly enthusiastic about will render you a phony.
You can be authentic and still voice your concerns. By connecting to parts of the communication that most resonate with you and talking about the benefits you do see, you can support the message. At the same time, it’s fair to acknowledge your concerns, and the concerns others might have. That’s not bashing – it’s simply acknowledging there will be benefits, and risks, and readying yourself, and the team to discuss both.
There’s a reason communication is the single biggest driver of leader success and the thing that can cause leaders to stumble. Communication is the barometer by which employees judge a leader’s honesty, character – their authenticity. It’s no wonder the stakes are high. Communicating authentically is easier when a leader’s views are aligned with the message. Communicating messages you don’t fully believe in is a harder line-to-walk. Reflecting on your values, what part of the message you can get behind, and then holding space for others to express their thoughts and feelings are actions you can take even when the message is a tough one. You may not be able to change the decision or the communication, but you can help people feel heard and continue to be seen as an authentic leader.