Careers advice: 8 essential leadership communication skills

27 January 2023

If you want to be an effective leader, you need excellent communication skills. In fact, it can be determine career success these days, as emotional intelligence assumes increasing importance in senior roles. According to a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, poor communication can lead to delayed projects, low morale, missed performance goals, and even lost sales. However, effective communication impacts more than just the bottom line. For leaders, strong communication is what enables them to motivate their team around a shared vision, build trust, and successfully implement organisational change.

If you’re interested in enhancing your leadership capabilities, here are eight communication skills you need to be more effective in your role.

1. Ability to adapt your communication style

Different communication styles are the most frequently cited cause of poor communication, according to The Economist, and can lead to significant issues, such as unclear priorities and increased stress due to role ambiguity. It’s essential to identify your leadership style, so that you can better understand who you’re interacting with, and how you’re perceived by your employees. For example, if you’re an authoritative leader (as opposed to authoritarian), you’re likely to have a clear vision for achieving success, align your team accordingly, and seek to empower others to achieve goals, whilst still enabling them to act with autonomy in their role. Every employee’s motivations are different, so knowing how to tailor your communication is essential to influencing others and reaching organisational goals.

2. Active listening

Effective leaders know when they need to talk and, more importantly, when they need to listen. Show that you care by asking for employees’ opinions, ideas, and feedback, and actively engage in the conversation through probing questions, and taking notes. It’s important to stay in the moment and avoid interrupting. Show respect for your employee by focusing on them and what they’re saying. To achieve that, you also need to eliminate any distractions, including constantly checking your phone or email.

3. Ask open-ended questions

If you want better communication with your staff, try to understand their motivations, style of thinking, and goals better, through asking open-ended questions using the acronym ‘TED’, which stands for: “Tell me more about…”, “Explain what you mean by...”, “Define that term or concept for me.”  By leveraging these phrases when speaking with your team, you can elicit more thoughtful, thorough responses and ensure you also gain clarity on what they need from you to succeed.

4. Transparency and purpose

89% of employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives (McKinsey 2021), but only 15% of front-line managers and employees feel they are getting this at work. Far fewer front-line employees (compared with managers) surveyed can see a connection between their daily work and their organisation’s purpose. Transparency in communication can go a long way to resolving this issue: by speaking openly about their company’s goals, opportunities, and challenges, leaders can build trust among their team and foster an environment where employees feel empowered to share their ideas and collaborate. Encouraging experimentation, and being open about mistakes and how they can lead to improvements, creates a safe space for active problem-solving.

5. Clarity

When communicating with employees, speak in specific terms. Define the desired result of a project or strategic initiative and be clear about what you want to see achieved by the end of each milestone. Check their understanding if you feel it necessary. If goals aren’t being met, try simplifying your message further or ask how you can provide additional clarity or help. The clearer you are, the less confusion there will be around priorities. Employees will know what they’re working toward and feel more engaged in the process.

6.  Empathy

There’s a reason empathy has been ranked the top leadership skill needed for success. The better you get at acknowledging and understanding employees’ feelings and experiences, the more heard and valued they’ll feel. Good work is built on organisational systems where employees feel supported and valued. In an ideal world, employees should feel comfortable to share their voice on workplace ideas and issues and able to build strong trusting relationships with colleagues. However, the reality is that compassionate leadership is still some way off.  Research in 2019 by Businessolver found that while 92% of CEOs perceived their organisations as empathetic, only 72% of employees said they worked for an empathetic employer. If you want to improve your communication and build a stronger, more productive culture, practice responding with empathy.

7. Open body language 

Communication isn’t just what you say; it’s also about how you carry yourself. Lots of research has been undertaken into the extent to which communication is non-verbal but there is no doubt that it can have significant positive and negative effects. To ensure you’re conveying the right message, remember to think about your body language. If you’re trying to inspire someone, speaking with an irritable or angry demeanour will obviously not send the right message. Instead, make eye contact to show interest and build rapport, and offer a genuine smile to convey warmth and trust.

8. Receiving and implementing feedback

Asking for feedback from your team can not only help you grow as a leader, but build trust among your colleagues. It’s critical, though, that you both listen to the feedback and act on it. If you don’t implement changes, they’re going to lose faith in your willingness to listen. Perhaps you won’t be able to act on it immediately, but be transparent about that. By keeping them up to date on your actions, you let your employees know you value their feedback, and are serious about improving.

Improving your leadership communication skills

Communication is at the core of effective leadership. If you want to influence and inspire your team, you need to practice empathy and transparency, and understand how others perceive you, through your verbal and non-verbal cues. To improve your communication skills and become a better leader, start by assessing your effectiveness now, so you can identify areas for improvement. Then, set some goals in line with the above suggestions, and hold yourself accountable by creating a Development Plan to guide and track your progress.