You’ll rarely come across successful leaders who have a tin ear. The best leaders are tuned in to the emotional needs of those whom they serve.  They engage, they listen, they empathize, and they acknowledge. They treat you as a colleague, not a subordinate. They seek to understand not direct. They are not tone deaf – they are relevant because they show they care.

Are you guilty of having a failure to communicate? Here’s the thing – who cares if you possess excellent communication skills if you don’t use them properly. It simply does no good to listen if you don’t hear or hear if you don’t understand. If your engagement isn’t advancing your vision, developing your team, or otherwise adding value to your stakeholders, then I would suggest your well-honed skills are not as refined as you may think. In today’s post, I want to address an often overlooked aspect of communications, which if not well understood, can render even the most articulate leaders ineffective – being tone-deaf.

When it comes to communications, it’s not just a matter of if you send a message that determines whether it’s received, but rather how, when, and why you send it that matters. I don’t know about you, but I’ve come across many a leader who just can’t seem to put the communications puzzle together – for whatever reason they don’t get it. They choose the wrong medium for their message, they appoint the wrong proxy to deliver a message they should have communicated in person, they communicate too infrequently, or my personal pet peeve, they bombard you by communicating far too often with disjointed messages that serve to confuse rather than to clarify – they are tone-deaf.

In other posts, I’ve pointed out that it is simply not possible to be a great leader without being a great communicator. This partially accounts for why we don’t encounter great leadership more often. The bottom line is that few things are as important when it comes to leadership as clear, crisp, on-point, and on-time communications. The big miss for most leaders is that they fail to understand that the purpose of communication is not to message but to engage. It’s not about being efficient, it’s about making others more effective. It’s about focusing on understanding the needs of others.

Put simply, leaders need to figure out the communications rhythms, patterns, and preferences of those they engage with. Leaders must learn to meet their constituents where they are in the manner most likely to add value to their world. The outcome of this should be obvious – improve the world of your stakeholders and your world gets better as well. Focus on the following three points and you’ll find that communications, morale, and performance will all improve:

  • Engage: Good communications are bi-directional. Don’t speak at or to someone – speak with them. Don’t monologue – dialog. While one-way communications might make you feel better initially, they only serve to frustrate those on the receiving end of your messaging. Keep in mind that when the negative impact of your poor communications is felt down the road, the damage will far outweigh the initial ego boost you received from giving your monologue.
  • Relevance: I’m always amazed at those who believe just because something matters to them, it must matter to others. Remember that just because you have something to say doesn’t necessarily mean other people want to hear it.  Furthermore, just increasing the volume or frequency of the message doesn’t make it any more relevant. When a message isn’t sticking, smart leaders don’t raise the volume of the rhetoric – they improve the quality of the message.
  • Pacing: It’s important to understand that not everyone communicates at the same pace – frequency matters. Again, this isn’t easy, but it’s well worth the time to figure it out. Some people simply require and are deserving of, more frequent interactions. Likewise, others thrive on less frequent engagement. Some do well-receiving information in group settings, while others require one-on-one time. Moreover, everyone has their technology preferences that need to be figured into the equation as well. The important take away here is that it’s YOUR JOB to figure all of this out.
  • Timing: Like pacing, it’s also important for leaders to understand that timing matters. Just because you have something to say doesn’t mean someone is ready or willing to listen. One of the most important things a leader can do is to demonstrate respect for the time of others. Other than in the case of an emergency, interruption is never a good foundation for delivering a message. Whether you’re communicating to an audience of one or many, once said audience realizes that you understand their needs and respect their time your message will be much more openly received.
  • Medium: I don’t really care about my communications preferences, I care about how well my communication is received. I use virtually every communications medium available to me to make sure I meet the needs of my stakeholders. I text, IM, email, phone, tweet, Facebook, blog, use video, and yes, my preference is to go old-school and get face-to-face when possible. I do these things not based upon what works for me, but what works for others. As a result of this, I have learned to make these things work for me. Let me be as clear as I can – a leader who fails to meet the needs of the stakeholders will soon be replaced by a leader who does.

Bottom line…even though what I’ve espoused above might seem trivial to some leaders, if you truly engage with people in a meaningful way, and in the manner most effective for them, it will be well worth the investment.