Leadership Skills: It’s What You Don’t Say That Causes Problems

You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.

– Lee Iacocca

It's What We Don't Say
I comment frequently about ways that leaders cause problems. We are not aware that many of the things we do will set up situations that boomerang back to us with a dysfunction, wrong result, or conflict. These unintended actions are a place for expansion of personal awareness and management of self.

This article is about the sins of omission, rather than the sins of commission. Our blind spots are named such because we don’t and sometimes can’t see them. Often we don’t see them because we don’t want to see them. We are so convinced that we are right or that we have the right to choose, so we overlook the trip words of omission. I’m constantly seeking to understand how I can improve my communication skills.

Here are five of these omissions that set up failure, low functioning, or conflict:

  1. Not being clear on specifying the desired results: This is very common with leaders I know. We engage someone and define their role as Marketing and Sales. That role and responsibility description is clear, however, there is often potential for conflict here because there are different assumptions on both sides. The leader has made the assumption that the person engaged will create sales. Many times the assumptions are grandiose with no basis in reality. When the assumed sales numbers are not met after months of work, the leader is upset and blames the marketer for the lack of undefined results when, in fact, it’s the leader who is at fault. There were no tangible outcomes defined. Sometimes the results are discussed, however, nothing is put in writing to check for understanding and to have a measurement tool for evaluating results. What we don’t define leads to dysfunction, misunderstanding, and damaged relationships.
  2. Leaving out the critical item: We define the outcome, however, we leave out an important distinction that matters. I had a situation in graduate school where a professor defined the project I needed to complete for my final juries. I completed the assignment, and turned it in before the group convened to meet with me so that I could present my work. Once he reviewed my paper, he called to say that the work I did was not what he intended. There was a missing element of clarity in the instructions. Just to be fair, I assumed one thing without checking for accuracy. I had to completely redo that assignment. How many times do we as leaders make assumptions and leave out a key element of clarity when handing off a task? Besides costing money and precious time, this situation often damages relationships if the stakes are high and the leader is harsh or blaming in correction. What we fail to define leaves gaps that lead to problems.
  3. Under communicating: Thinking that communication is automatic and that it is about data is a common, but preventable, trap. We think our knowledge is apparent to others and assume that they get it without validation. Communication is the systematic and intentional sharing of information. It is, however, not about the data, it’s a synergy of thought based on relationship. Just sending an email is not effective communication. Complete communication is somewhat like what happens when a computer sends a print job to a printer. There’s a digital handshake in which a printer validates information received and the computer acknowledges it. There are multiple iterations of this process. What we don’t say contributes to or causes conflict.
  4. Not dealing with issues when they arise: This is a bigger deal than most people realize. In my book, Building High Performance Teams: Systems and Structures for Leading Teams and Empowering Transformation, I have a chapter on conflict in teams in 4 sections: diagnostic, preventative, prescriptive, and resources. I provide examples of how not dealing with small issues promptly leads to having hugely damaging results in the long run. I call this “paying the upfront cost” rather than paying the big cost later. It’s not likely that any leader likes dealing with conflict. It is typical to put off dealing with it, sometimes thinking that it will work itself out or go away. This is not true. What we don’t say in this circumstance causes problems.
  5. Not giving affirmation: This might seem to be a bit too social for a business environment. After all, people are paid for their time and effort, so why do they also need to be stroked emotionally? Valuing the individual and not just valuing their work is a basic principle of transformational leadership. As I have pointed out, leadership and communication are based on relationship. At the heart of relationship is care for the person. Celebration of success, cheerleading effort, providing support, and giving encouragement are all things that we value as humans.

Right-sizing a start-up enterprise is crucial. Managing the right amount of initiatives is essential for any size enterprise. Management of self and right-sizing our language is a learned and rehearsed leadership skill.

Maybe it’s about saying too much…

What say Ye?


Hugh Ballou

The Transformational Leadership Strategist TM

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Hugh Ballou (Author)