Leadership Communication: The Key to Transforming Workplace Culture?

In a world where the public perception of brands is increasingly important, good communications skills can help leaders gain an edge.
Diane Nowell
Nov 06, 2023

Not all business leaders are naturally charismatic speakers. Unless they’re fronting podcasts, forums or fireside chats, leaders may well feel that their innate communication style should be ‘good enough’. And yet, in a world where the public perception of brands is arguably of greater importance than companies’ real-world actions, the capacity for eloquent, intentional engagement has become a non-negotiable attribute of truly effective leadership.

It’s not a new phenomenon; savvy leaders have long understood that communicating with flair and confidence – in and outside the workplace – is a crucial corporate survival skill. Increasingly, though, it’s also seen as integral to the creation and evolution of a successful and resilient workplace culture.

Informing workplace culture

This connection between leadership communication and workplace culture is intrinsic, according to Stuart Cheesman, Client Strategist at workplace culture expert, O.C. Tanner.

‘Good leadership communication is inextricably linked to a culture of transparency, openness, and trust, leading to stronger employee-manager relations, while avoiding confusion and uncertainty.

‘Conversely, poor communication can create anxiety and stress, as confusion fuels worry and fear.’

Most would accept that leaders have a vital role to play in helping to create happy, healthy and harmonious workplaces where everyone can be at their best. If they want to strengthen cultural values, though, they must first create an environment where employees are not only open to communication, but positively welcome it.

Frank Devine is a culture change specialist, educator, and author.

‘A bottom-up, heavily skills-based approach to creating a high-performance employee-owned culture is key if you want to shift to substantive employee engagement and enablement. It will produce quicker, more sustainable and less leadership-dependent results than conventional communication approaches.’

Reducing conflict

Effective communicators can also use their skills to mitigate conflict. In fact, the ability to facilitate constructive dialogue in the resolution of workplace disagreements is crucial to navigating complex and turbulent times.

David Liddle is founder and CEO of The TCM Group and an expert in conflict resolution, leadership development, and cultural change.

‘Executives often lack the confidence, courage, and competence to intervene effectively when tension, disagreements or outright disputes arise in their teams. There’s a tendency to try and brush issues under the carpet, but, if left unaddressed, situations often escalate into adversarial formal processes that damage relationships beyond repair.

‘Conflict within teams isn’t itself a sign of failure but communication is key. Transforming conflict from a dysfunctional dispute to a collaborative solution via healthy debate could actually make your team stronger and more effective.’

Asking and listening

Finding more effective ways of collaborative engagement is certainly central to long-term business growth. There’s little doubt that as the values and expectations of employees continue to evolve, leaders must find new ways to motivate and engage their teams.

And yet, despite recent government-sponsored research showing that more innovative, enquiry-led management styles improve employee engagement, productivity, inclusion and collaboration, it’s fair to say that traditional command-and-control management styles still prevail in some company cultures.

Research project lead Dominic Ashley-Timms is an author and CEO of performance consultancy Notion.

‘Learning to asking powerful questions stimulates better levels of innovation, devolves the accountability for solving issues and frees up to 20 percent of managers’ time.

‘As a respectful form of communication, asking authentic questions for the other person’s benefit avoids the risk of saying the wrong thing or being seen to micromanage and instead builds trust within the team, and belief in the manager’s support.’

Active listening is also a prerequisite of creating a more productive ‘two-way street’ for leaders looking to prioritise innovation.

According to 2016 DDI leadership study, leaders who mastered ‘listening and responding with empathy’ were likely to perform more than 40 percent better when engaging with their peers, as well as in planning and decision-making tasks.

Dr Alison Watson is Head of School of Leadership and Management at Arden University.

‘A huge part of communicating that can often go amiss is the ability to listen. It’s one of the biggest non-verbal communication skills that can build a strong team.

‘Active listening is an integral part of developing empathy; it ensures employees and team members are considered, appreciated and invested in.’

It’s a view echoed by Alexia Pedersen, VP of EMEA at O’Reilly.

‘Active listening will help understand whether people are feeling upbeat, challenged, in need of a boost or striving to be highly productive.

‘Taking this kind of temperature check will help determine the best communication style and messaging needed.’

Managing organisational change

These asking-and-listening skills have come into sharp focus as organisations find themselves navigating a climate of almost constant change and ambiguity, challenging leaders’ ability to communicate context to combat the inevitable fear and resistance that change brings.

The best leaders do this by not overcomplicating their messages, answering questions with honesty and openness in a virtuous feedback loop.

Julie Nerney and Geoff Robins are business transformation experts and co-authors of Business Morphology: How to Navigate Through Change.

‘Clarity and transparency must be underpinned by the creation of a genuine feedback loop so that you can deepen your empathy for different perspectives and improve your messaging.

‘This feedback loop is essential for you and your leadership team in the delivery of the change. It helps you recognise when and how you need to iterate the route to your destination, while making sure that you keep your people with you.’

Crisis communication consultant Amanda Coleman believes that speaking first, and speaking frequently, is critical, especially in situations where rumour and speculation are rife.

‘Understanding people’s views and perspectives needs to be at the heart of effective communication. How you treat people – even in the heat of a crisis – will be part of your legacy.

‘Giving people the right support, information and advice at the right time is the definition of effective communication in the context of change.’

Being human

It’s crucial that leaders don’t let process overshadow empathy when communicating change, however.

Olga Valadon is a corporate empathy expert and the founder of leadership, strategy and culture consultancy Change Aligned®.

‘It is important to remember that we are human beings first and then employees.

‘Leadership is about getting the job done, but unless you help people navigate the change process and get their buy-in, success won’t come. Communicating change involves demonstrating sensitivity. Feeling heard and acknowledged will help people begin their journey toward embracing any transition.’

As Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD Andy Yap believes that in order to secure this buy-in, leaders must reflect on every aspect of their communication skills.

‘Even the best strategists will succeed or fail on their ability to persuade others to follow their lead. Being able to communicate that vision, direction and process for change is a key skillset for transformational leaders.

‘Leaders who want to improve should start with self-awareness. Reviewing videos of how you speak and behave in meetings and presentations may make you cringe, but it will help you move forward.’

It can be hard for some leaders to elevate their communication style, though, without feeling it impacts negatively on what they consider to be their authentic persona.

Communication coach and business speaker Matt Boardman helps people to pitch their propositions in high-stakes, time-limited meetings.

‘Admitting you need to improve the way you communicate can be hard; seeing it as an aspect of embracing and modelling a growth mindset will help.

‘In fact, even small tweaks to the way we express ourselves – making better eye contact or speaking more fluently, for example – can make a huge difference to your effectiveness as a communicator. And, it takes less time than you’d think for these changes to become habitual behaviours that no longer feel performative. It’s a powerful practice.’

However, good communication isn’t just a mindful blend of verbal, non-verbal and cognitive cues; it’s also about the values you encompass, how you behave and how you make others feel.

Stuart Cheesman: ‘This means understanding the importance of connecting employees to each other, to organisational purpose and to the great work they do.

‘It’s about taking the time to get to know employees as individuals, empowering those employees and recognising them for their everyday efforts and results, so they feel valued and appreciated.’

Alison Watson: ‘It’s an in-demand skill for a reason: good communication results in goals being met, a higher level of trust between people and teams, stronger relationships and an overall move towards positive change.’

Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant