Leadership Communication“Nobody really likes being told what to do or where to go,

no matter how right it may be”

-Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge[1] (p. 117).

I enjoy teaching classes about leadership. Many aspects of business are formulaic. You determine how to maximize efficiency and then you follow your plan. But it is not that simple when you deal with people.
Leadership is a tricky business. You can say the same thing to two people and each person will interpret what you say differently. One may walk away encouraged while the other walks away offended. There are so many variables at play that the art of leadership is a fascinating subject. As I tell my classes, “People are complicated; spreadsheets don’t talk back but people do.”
Leaders tend to fall into a number of predictable traps. Sometimes they confuse leadership and management, so they try to manage instead of lead people. Sometimes they think leadership is about office rather than the function of leadership, so they try to lead without establishing a relationship with their people. Sometimes they have studied the issue and they are certain about the right answers, but they fail to appropriately communicate, so they push ahead without having everyone onboard. This inevitably leads to trouble.
Perhaps this has happened to you. You knew where you wanted the organization to go. You thought about it for a long time—perhaps for months. But when you finally explained what needed to be done, your people do not react with the same enthusiasm that you have. Why?

The Experiment

Imagine that you are at a dinner party. You are taking turns knocking on the table to the tune of a song to see if your guests can guess the tune. You have chosen songs we all know (e.g., Mary Had a Little Lamb, Happy Birthday, etc.). Like charades, the rules of the game require you to remain silent. You cannot sing the song or hum the song. You can only knock on the table. Then your guests would try to guess the song. What are they odds that they will get it?  Do you think they would hear the tune?
In Originals, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania explained his results running this experiment:
I’ve been running this exercise for years with leaders and students, and it’s as fun at a dinner party as it is educational. What was your estimate? If you said zero, you’re either questioning your own tapping skills or seriously doubting the ear of your friend. In the original study at Stanford, after tapping a song, people thought it would be easy for a listener to guess it: they predicted that their peers had a 50 percent chance of naming it accurately. But when they went a head and tapped the songs, only 2.5 percent actually guessed correctly.[2]
What was going on? How can something be so glaringly obvious to the tapper and so difficult for the listeners to discern? Grant explained,

“It’s humanly impossible to tap out the rhythm of a song without hearing the tune in your head. That makes it impossible to imagine what your disjointed knocks sound like to an audience that is not hearing the accompanying tune. As Chip and Dan Heath write in Made to Stick,  ‘The listeners can’t hear that tune—all they can here is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse code.…”

You’ve spent hours, days, weeks, months, or maybe even years thinking about the idea. You’ve contemplated the problem, formulated the solution, and rehearsed the vision. You know the rhythm and melody of your idea by heart. By that point, it is not longer possible to imagine what it sounds lie to an audience that’s listening to it for the first time.[3]
The tapping game is a useful metaphor for leadership communication. You have it down to a science, but if it is new to your followers, they have to digest it just as you did in the early stages. They are not where you are and unless you are much duller than they are, they should not immediately understand what took you a long time to understand.
So you need to communicate, communicate, and communicate. And then you need to do it some more. You should communicate the idea ten times more than you think you need to because studies show that we under-communicate by roughly a factor of ten.
Then test for understanding. Ask questions that will help you determine if they understand the initiative. Don’t just test for comprehension, but for motivation (e.g., not what, but why). Don’t stop at motivation either.
Are you telling them how it will be or eliciting their ideas about how it could be? Kouzes and Posner remind us that, “nobody really likes being told what to do or where to go, no matter how right it may be.” If you are like me, you have rejected a good idea because of the manner in which it was delivered. Truth be told, if it were your idea, you would have whole-heartedly embraced it, but you rejected it because you were required to do it. There is a world of difference between telling and asking.
Strive for synthesis. Do they have ideas that could improve your thinking? I have always found that when I bring an idea to my colleagues, they improve the original concept. The wise leader looks for input, not just understanding.
If your people are not where they need to be, don’t get frustrated with them. Try to see from their perspective. Ask someone to tap out a tune and see if you can guess it. After all, that is what they are experiencing as they try to follow you.

What About You?

How can you remind yourself that if your people are not singing your tune, they probably haven’t learned the song?
[1] Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.  (2012). The leadership challenge (5th ed.).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (p. 117).
[2] Grant, A. (2017). Originals: How non-conformists change the world. New York: Penguin Books. (p. 75).
[3] Grant, A. (2017). Originals: How non-conformists change the world. New York: Penguin Books. (p. 76).