Chapter 1 – Leadership Communication: What Is It and How is It Different Than Leadership?

Most people can give you a working definition of leadership. The same is true for communication. However, when asked to define leadership communication, some may draw a blank. In this chapter, we will flesh out a communicative view of leadership and highlight the benefits of considering leadership from this perspective.

Communication is the yardstick others use to assess your ability as a leader. What’s that, you say? How does my communication ability connect to my leadership ability? Well, these two go hand in hand, so much so we cannot disentangle one from the other.

Employees see how you interact with others. Are you rushed and distracted when talking to team members or do you give them your full attention? Are you patient with all employees or are there certain employees who you give more of your time and mentoring to? When you share information and directives with your team, do you do so confidently, clearly articulating expectations, roles, and deadlines? Or do you just rattle off a long list of information and expect team members to make the connections?

The point is that leadership does not exist without communication. Communication is the vehicle that we use to connect with others, to share our ideas, and to inspire collaboration. Communication is the way in which we strengthen and maintain relationships and navigate conflict when it arises.

 

How does leadership communication differ from a managerial or a psychological view?

The communication perspective on leadership incorporates principles from business and psychology. And in a reciprocal fashion, business and leadership are informed by principles of effective communication.

Leadership communication scholars view leadership as being enacted through communication. This means that they see the performance of leadership, whether someone giving a speech or facilitating a meeting or engaging in a one-on-one with an employee, as a performance delivered through communication.  That is, leadership communication scholars and students see leadership come alive through the intentional modeling of non-verbal and verbal communication behaviors. This means:

  • Being mindful of your body language: If you look at images of formal leaders on the cover of a newspaper or webpage, you will notice some similarities. They tend to stand tall, with their shoulders back and their head up. If you watch them give a speech you will notice they use intentional hand gestures, strategic pauses, and a calm, thoughtfully paced tone. Even if they are tired or cold, they tend to avoid crossing their arms. Why is that? We often interpret crossed arms as someone who is unapproachable or who does not want to be disturbed.
  • Committing to inclusive language: Leaders use thoughtful, intentional, and inclusive language. This means that they do not use gendered language (“Hey guys!” or “salesmen”), they ask and use someone’s pronouns, and communicate in ways that integrate members, rather than excluding them. This can even mean recognizing that while most of your team is excitedly discussing last night’s basketball game before the meeting, if a few people appear to be left out or we know they don’t follow basketball, then we can throw out a new and more inclusive topic of conversation.
  • Choosing to be respectful, responsible, and safe with your words and actions: While it may seem overly simple to choose to be respectful, responsible, and safe with our words and actions, it is likely we have all found ourselves in a situation where this wasn’t necessarily the case. We are all human and make mistakes, but good leaders will claim responsibility for their errors, offer an apology, and a suggestion for how to avoid the mistake or shortcoming in the future. Being respectful with words and actions means being mindful of others’ opinions and beliefs and may also mean educating yourself on their cultures and related customs. This also includes demonstrating emotional intelligence in the workplace. Finally, a commitment to being safe means cultivating an environment where employees do not fear harm. This means an environment where it is safe to brainstorm innovative, and off the wall ideas, or to offer radical new ways of doing things without fear of being laughed at.

While management and psychology leadership scholars will also likely get behind these suggestions, they tend to see communication as one aspect of leading, rather than the vehicle or mechanism for enacting leadership. Management and psychology leadership scholars may conduct a study where they look at communication frequency, or communication satisfaction, within a larger view of leadership. These studies are important and help us to better understand aspects of leadership, but unlike a leadership communication view, they minimize the essential role that communication plays in the display and assessment of leadership. These perspectives also underplay the vital role that communication plays in the development and maintenance of workplace relationships.

 

Relationships = Communication

Communication can deflate relationships, but this also means that communication can fuel them just as quickly. Words matter. We know that. We’ve all reacted too quickly and said something out of anger, only to feel regret as we watch how our words have hurt our friend, our parent, or our peer. Yet we have also been on the observing end of watching how a thoughtful compliment or a kind word can cause another’s expression to transform into happiness and joy.

We can see this come into play in organizational relationships. In Chapter 2 you will learn about three common exchange relationships in the workplace: leader-member, coworker, and team-member. Exchange relationships are those where we expect to give and receive in similar ratios (unlike communal relationships where we don’t necessarily keep track of what we give relative to what we receive). In these workplace relationships we recognize that communication is the mechanism used to get to know others, to share (or withhold) information, and to collaborate to accomplish organizational goals.  We may recognize that we can teach our colleagues how to use a certain computer program as it will take the pressure off us while also allowing them to add to their skill set. We may also recognize that it is important to have a conversation with a peer who we believe interrupts us during meetings. Regardless of the intent, we employ our communication as we navigate these workplace relationships.

One way in which to view the foundational role communication plays in workplace relationships (in addition to leadership) is in visualizing leader-member, peer, and team-member relationships. In the figure (1.1) below, you can see how workplace relationships used to be conceptualized –as separate points of a triangle. This antiquated view makes it appear as though we can pull workplace relationships apart from one another and act as if they don’t influence each other. A communicative view reminds us that our nonverbal and verbal communication behaviors are observable – that is, others can tell who we have stronger connections with and who we may tend to avoid or interact with only when necessary.

A more contemporary approach includes the visual representation below (figure 1.2). Unlike the triangle approach with tries to parcel these workgroup relationships out from each other, the tent visualization recognizes that communication ties these associations together. As you’ll read more about in chapter 2, the relationship you share with your leader (leader-member exchange; LMX) impacts who you are likely to befriend at the peer level (coworker exchange; CWX). The collective set of leader-member and peer relationships makeup the team-member exchange (TMX) and explain how it feels to work within that group. When we have high team-member exchange, we tend to have a group built on trust and one that communicates openly and frequently. However, in instances where we have poor or low team-member exchange, then it may feel overly competitive and or unsupportive. In either case, those where we have high quality relationships or low-quality relationships, communication is the tie that binds us with others at work.

 

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Figure 1.1

 

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Figure 1.2

 

Another way that leaders use communication in their role is to establish and maintain workplace culture. You’ll learn more about this in Chapter 6, however, introducing some of the ways in which leaders influence culture through their communication better helps us to understand the link between leadership and communication.

  • Leaders articulate expectations
  • Leaders role model desired behaviors
  • Leaders develop individual relationships with each employee
  • Leaders praise positive behaviors and immediately correct disruptive ones
  • Leaders create opportunities for members to get to know each other
  • Leaders emphasize the collective functioning of the group
  • Leaders share feedback with members individually and collectively

In many ways, formal leaders influence how it feels to work in a specific unit or department. They can create and foster an environment that is collaborative, and relationship centered. They can do this by communicating in ways that model the behaviors they would like to see; members who listen to each other, demonstrate respect and kindness, and freely share ideas and information.

 

Discursive Leadership

Viewing relationships through a communicative lens helps us better understand a specific communicative view of leadership: discursive leadership. A discursive approach defines leadership as occurring when one’s verbal communication translates into a vision or ideas that can be implemented (Fairhurst, 2008). Put simply, these authors suggest that leadership only exists when someone expresses an idea verbally or through their actions and other team members receive and validate this communication. Even more simply stated: No communication = no leadership.

Discursive leadership takes a social constructionist view, which is a complex way of saying that everyone will have slightly different views on leadership even when they are all in the same workgroup, or same meeting, for example. Leadership is a social, communicative phenomenon, and in the eye of the beholder. This means that who you recognize as a model leader, may not align with my idea of an exemplary leader. While I might appreciate direct language use, you may prefer receiving feedback or directives in a different way. If we shared a manager who was assertive in his/her/their language, then I may see them as a great leader whereas you would likely evaluate them differently.

Another defining aspect of discursive leadership is that it doesn’t see leadership tied to a specific person or organizational role. Instead, a discursive leadership perspective acknowledges that anyone at any time can lead. How is that the case? Depending on the way in which one expresses their ideas verbally or through their actions (non-verbally), can lead others to see them as influential or trustworthy.

What does this mean for you? A discursive leadership view and more broadly, a leadership communication view translates into the following benefits for you:

  1. You don’t need a formal title to be seen as a leader. Since leadership is socially constructed, using thoughtful, intentional, and inclusive communication will allow you to demonstrate leadership via your respect of others.
  2. Leadership requires reflection. If we know that part of being a strong leader is reflecting on our communication behaviors, this gives us a compelling reason to “check-in” on our progress. This can be a few minutes mental check-in where we review aspects of our week that went well. Maybe we spoke up often in class or helped our group get organized around the task. It also means considering aspects of the week where we wish we had responded or handled the situation differently. For example, maybe we should have let our colleague finish explaining why they did something instead of interrupting them with questions or additional accusations. You might also make this a more formal practice in terms of journaling or asking friends and family members for feedback in terms of your strengths and areas for improvement. Leaders are always learning!
  3. You can communicate in a way to emerge as a leader. Want others to see you as a leader? Interested in others asking for your feedback or your opinion? Have specialized experience you want to share? Contribute early and often in group meetings. You do not want to monopolize the conversation, but you do want to demonstrate your interest and commitment by offering thoughtful suggestions AND by listening to others’ ideas. Leaders offer ideas, but they are also thoughtful listeners.

1.1 Leadership in Action: Sharpening Your Leadership Communication Skills

One of the most exciting elements of viewing leadership through a communication lens is that it is a skill that can be practiced, sharpened, and mastered. Just like public speaking (and other communication-based skills) the more time and effort we put into it, typically the better we become and the more confidence we gain.

So, if leadership is a communication skill, how do we enhance our abilities?

The easiest way to consider this topic is by focusing on some common leadership actions.

Relationship Development: Good leaders recognize that leadership stems from trusting relationships with others. At its heart, leadership means to influence. It is easier for us to rally around and support a formal leader we know as a person. That means that we have an idea of who they are outside of their formal role. We believe that we can go to them with questions or concerns and that they will listen to us and offer suggestions that have our best interests at heart. How do we work on developing our interpersonal communication skills? We take an authentic interest in getting to know others, in asking them questions and listening to their answers. We communicate with intention and are committed to an environment that is responsible, respectful, and safe. In chapter 2 you’ll learn more about relationship development.

Inspiration: Leaders are change agents and cheerleaders, among many other things. Leaders are expected to be able to connect with each individual employee and communicate with them in a way that is going to inspire them to do their best. For some employees, this might mean a “tough love” coaching style and for others, it will be a gentle reminder. Leaders are also the organizational members who help teams to stay focused and committed when projects are complicated, challenging, and draining. Leaders use their communication to provide employees with advice, motivation, and suggestions at all stages of a project and through all points of an employee’s tenure.

Vision Setting: Leaders are future focused. One way they help their employees and their organization to continue to evolve is by setting a realistic vision for the future. A vision statement guides and unites an organization toward a goal, reminds followers of what the organization is about and is working to become.  Lucas (1998) suggestions that a vision is a determination of what makes us (our organization or team) unique, a puller (not pusher) into the future, and a source for our (organization or team) priorities, plans, and goals. Articulating a vision requires exemplary persuasion skills and the ability to communicate a desirable future state in a succinct, enticing manner.

These are just a few of the many roles that a leader enacts. These roles, along with the myriad others, illustrate that being a formal leader means being an exceptional communicator. Communication skills can always be enhanced, learned, and taught.

 

Transmission vs Meaning-Centered View of Communication

The final way in which we are going to look at the evolution of communication is in considering a transmission view of communication in contrast to a meaning-centered view. This also gives us more insight into the link between communication and leadership.

Early communication research suggested that communication was composed of three components: a message, a sender, and a receiver. Later conceptualizations added additional elements such as channel (i.e., face to face or mediated) and noise (i.e., interruptions that interfere with sending or receiving messages. However, this is a very rudimentary, and antiquated view of communication.

Why? The transmission model reduces the pivotal role communication plays in, well, communication.

A more contemporary view—a meaning-centered view—recognizes the complexity of human communication. A meaning-centered approach suggests an intentional use of communication in order to articulate ideas, navigate conflict, and build relationships among other things. For example, if your conversational partner didn’t catch the last few words you uttered, then repeating yourself or speaking more loudly or enunciating can do the trick. That is, in cases where someone simply didn’t hear correctly, then we can restate our original thought as is. However, what happens more commonly is that someone disagrees and there is a value difference that is impeding understanding (not a volume issue or a channel issue).

In these cases, a meaning-centered view of communication can allow us to clearly express our thoughts, actively listen to our conversation partner’s perspective, and communicate in ways that indicate respect for everyone involved while maintaining the relationship. Whew, that’s a lot, right? But guess what? It is doable (with practice and intention) and it is often the most efficient route as well. Why is that? Because when we communicate from meaning-centered stance, we aim to understand the other, rather than best them, and are thinking of how to work toward a shared outcome with our relationship quality intact.

What are some concrete things that you can do in order to communicate in this way?

  1. Intentional language: Intentional language means taking time to think about how your word choice could impact others. Have you asked and are you using others’ preferred pronouns? Instead of greeting your team as “Hi guys, how is everyone doing?” think about using neutral, non-gendered language such as “Hi team” or “Hi everyone”.
  2. Tone: Tone boils down to not what you say, but how you say it. One way we see tone issues often is through misunderstood or misinterpreted text messages. Without the benefit of nonverbal communication behaviors, messages can get lost in translation. Of course, this happens in face to face exchanges as well. We may realize that our friend didn’t appreciate our attempt at humor or perhaps we had said something and realize it came out sounding harsher or sharper than we intended. Communication means being mindful of what was said and how it was said/delivered.
  3. Other-Oriented Approach: Taking an other-oriented approach means seeking to understand your conversational partner, before trying to persuade them toward your opinion or point of view. An other-oriented approach allows you to gather information from your partner and process that information in order to better understand where they are coming from. This can be challenging, especially when we care deeply about a topic or our emotions are involved. However, by taking the time to allow the other to communicate without interruption and practicing active listening, it will be much easier to understand their perspective, which allows you to communicate with more information in hand.
  4. Active Listening: On the surface, active listening sounds pretty easy. Active listening is different than hearing. Active listening includes engaging in eye contract, asking questions, and paraphrasing. This also means remaining present in the exchange and not thinking about your to-do list or how you’d like to respond. Active listening includes modeling open-body language, where you are angled toward your conversation partner with your arms open.
  5. Meaning-Centered Approach: A meaning-centered approach is the culmination of the four previous communication practices. This requires intention and practice, but will allow you to communicate as an expert and when you communicate well, you are seen as a leader.

 

Chapter Resources

Critical Incidents in Leadership – Mini Case Study

A couple of years ago, two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks because they had asked to use the restroom but had not made a purchase (link to article included in Leadership Communication in the Media section). The two men had been waiting for another man to arrive for a meeting and one had asked for the key to use the restroom. However, since they did make a purchase one of the employees called the police. The two men were arrested and those asking for reasoning as to why were offered none from the police on the scene. The man who was late for the meeting arrived to see his two meeting partners being arrested and he is heard on video yelling “are you arresting them because they are black?” Starbucks issued an apology for the incident and closed all stores for a one-day training in-service.

Drawing from this incident, please respond to the following:

  1. How do employees move from a transactional communication approach (i.e., the requestor has not made a purchase therefore they cannot use the key and I must call the police) toward a meaning-centered perspective?
  2. How might employees be coached to maintain organizational policies while also being safe, responsible, and respectful as communicators?

 

Leadership Communication in the Media

  1. The Communicative Leader Podcast. This weekly podcast is all about leadership communication. Ranging from leader development to what is leadership communication and is it different from management, this podcast offers detailed and specific guidance for helping you to make your work life what you want it to be. The Communicative Leader is available from Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, and Spotify, or can be accessed via this link: https://thecommunicativeleader.buzzsprout.com

 

  1. Great Leaders Have These Behaviors in Common. This brief article (Nelson, 2021) highlights seven communication traits that great leaders display. You can also download a free reflect and act activity from Gallup related to the article: 7 Expectations for Leaders: Reflect and Act Activity Download | Gallup

 

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/15/us/starbucks-philadelphia-black-men-arrest.html

 

 

 

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Leadership Communication: Principles and Practice Copyright © 2024 by Leah Omilion-Hodges and Annette Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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