Kate Nasser started her working life as a high school math teacher but quit after a few months, tired of herding teenagers and being hit by meatballs when she was on cafeteria duty. She switched to computer programming but when it became clear that dealing with other humans wasn't the strong point of most folks around her, moved into teaching "people skills" to others.
"You can have the best strategic plan and all sorts of goals but it's the interactions that create the results," the New Jersey-based consultant said in an interview.
And many executives are failing the grade, usually because of a number of easy-to-correct goofs. In essence, they fail to focus on the gaps between them and their followers – whether it's knowledge, focus of attention, or background. Determined to control the conversation, leaders fail to engage in dialogue, so they don't learn through interaction what those gaps are and how to bridge them. The result can be a deep gulf in understanding.
Here are tips you can put to use:
Explain the big picture
Too often leaders assume followers understand the big picture that executives have access to, or that they share the same expertise. So they leave things out, preventing full understanding. The lesson: Don't assume subordinates know as much as you do. At the same time, don't drone on with everything you know, to compensate. Aim for a dialogue, asking questions to determine the listener's understanding and whether sufficient explanation has been given.
Get beyond your own concerns
Too often leaders are so caught up in their own responsibilities, they distort their overall message. Preoccupied with cost effectiveness, they are distressed when after the meeting that's all people heard, even though other aspects of productivity were mentioned. She suggests writing your worries down beforehand, making them concrete and, ironically, less dominant, so the big picture can take precedence.
Don't skip the details
Often leaders are so focused on the end results and pressed for time, they jump over the details to finish quickly. This drives subordinates crazy. "The leader is at the finish line and the employees are looking at each other wondering, how do we get there? They don't want to be micromanaged but they want more clues than just the destination. They need the key pieces," she advises.
Acknowledge what you don't know
Leaders often skip issues they don't have answers for. "They do this to prevent confusion or to avoid personal embarrassment and vulnerability. Yet, these gaps often cause more confusion in a changing environment," she writes on her blog. Instead, identify the gaps in knowledge and label them unknowns so people are aware of what's missing, and you can return to the issues when more becomes known.
Too often leaders confuse patience with indecision, so they communicate as infrequently and quickly as possible. But you need to take time to provide clarity. Indeed, ask subordinates: "What are you confused about?" Get it on the table. In the end, that will speed things up.
Don't mimic your boss
Often leaders emulate the style of their boss, an unconscious result of trying to manage their boss. But at the top of the organization, leaders, confident and powerful, can be extremely terse and blunt. That won't necessarily work lower down the chain. The message she garnered from employees complaining about bosses: "The further we are from the top, the more information we need from you."
Be alert to diversity
Teams these days are diverse, notably culturally and generationally, but also in other ways – scientists are quite different from human resources staff, for example. Those can be big gaps, so stay alert. She suggests reading more about diversity. "If you are an up-and-coming millennial, successful and a new manager, be aware not everybody thinks like you," she notes. Also try spot checks as you are talking to others, to ensure understanding. "What did I do to confuse you?" can be a disarming and effective question. Engage in conversation about your conversations.
It's also important to prepare for major communication efforts, thinking through questions you might be asked. Research suggests that focusing too much on negatives can harm your message. People need inspiration and a vision of success. Indeed, view your conversations – those important interactions that are laced through your day – as similar to onlookers cheering on a marathoner who has hit the wall and is about to give up. "It inspires at that moment and can make all the difference. We dig deeper when there's conversations," she concludes.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter