You can’t be a good leader if you don’t know how to communicate effectively. Leadership is about moving a group or groups of people forward toward a common goal, and there is no movement if there is no communication, or if your communication is riddled with mistakes and inconsistencies. Or, if you don’t have the courage to say what needs to be said. Simply put, effective and timely communication go hand-in-hand with effective leadership.
There are dozens of communication mistakes leaders make, particularly when they need to communicate something tricky like behavioral feedback or ideas for improvement. It’s likely you have seen, experienced – and perhaps even exhibited some of these communication mistakes many times over.
Let’s take a look at the most common communication mistakes leaders make when delivering feedback or a message that is potentially difficult to hear, so that we can learn from them and avoid the common pitfalls.
Communication Mistake #1: Avoiding or Procrastinating
I once gave the same mediocre presentation seven times before someone was kind enough to tell me all of the ways it wasn’t so great. When I went back to the (dozens of) people who had already seen the presentation, they all agreed with the feedback, but didn’t take the time to give it to me prior because they were afraid of hurting my feelings. I was so grateful to the person who gave me the feedback, and quite irritated no one had given it to me after one of the previous six presentations. Armed with the feedback and with little effort, I made the presentation 10 times better.
Many leaders with people-pleasing tendencies try to avoid perceived conflict and tricky conversations at all costs – even when the cost is high performance and achievement. The result is often mediocrity, apathy, unmet expectations, and a team of people who are stagnant, apathetic, and chock-full of blind spots.
The risk of avoiding giving feedback is that the person who needs the feedback never finds out what they could be doing better, and so they are stuck underperforming in that area without even knowing it. The consequences of this can be far-reaching.
If you continue to avoid giving feedback, you’ll wind up with feedback debt or conflict debt. Liane Davey coined the term conflict debt, which she defines as, “The sum of all the contentious issues that need to be addressed to be able to move forward but instead remain undiscussed and unresolved. It can be as simple as withholding feedback and as profound as deferring a strategic decision.” When you let it fester, more resentment grows and leads to more friction.
I think it becomes harder and harder to say something, the longer you’ve wanted to say it.
Communication Mistake #2: Confusing Facts and Opinions
It’s dangerous to treat your judgments and perspectives like facts in any situation. In workplace communication and feedback in particular, making the distinction between your own beliefs and opinions and the facts involved is crucial if you are going to influence others and make strategic decisions.
Recognizing that your point of view on something belongs to you, and that others are entitled to different beliefs and opinions about the same situation, is very important.
In a feedback conversation, there are likely elements of the situation which you can measure and are objectively a certain way – those are the facts. They can be proven right or wrong by a third party or some other measure. Those factual elements are important to bring into the conversation to help ground your feedback or position – these fact-based statements belong to the situation.
Then there are the beliefs, opinions, judgments, and assessments you hold about the situation. Those belong to you, and different people involved in the situation may see the situation differently.
The consequences of labeling an opinion as a fact are plentiful, including creating confusion, misinformation, poor decision making, and putting others on the defensive. It’s okay to have and to offer opinions – but it’s important to label them as opinions. Beginning conversations with statements like, “My experience was…,” “I believe ….,” and “I feel ….,” is a great start.
Communication Mistake #3: Rushing
You’re rushing to a meeting, and you see your direct report in the hallway on your way. You stop them to quickly make a request, expect an immediate answer, yet you don’t have time to field any questions, talk through it with them, or even hear them respond. You didn’t even notice that they were also on their way to a meeting, that their schedule is booked for the remainder of the day, and you don’t even know if they know how to do the thing you need them to do. You are subsequently disappointed that they did not complete the task in short order.
The right conversation at the wrong time is the wrong conversation. When you don’t allow enough time for someone to ask questions or to convey something important, and you rush them through the conversation, you can come across as uncaring and unfair. If you’re rushed, you won’t have time to hear their side of the story, negotiate a timeline, or collaborate on a go-forward plan. You are only focused on finding the end of the conversation and checking it off your list.
Plan your conversation for a time you can be present and focused on the person in front of you, and not everything else on your plate. Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up.
Mistake #4: Sugarcoating
Sugarcoating might be even more dangerous than avoiding feedback and communication entirely, and it is probably the most common mistake I see. Sugarcoating feedback is when you bury the message underneath a pile of niceties – so much so that the main message is not actually received or understood. Sugarcoating happens when someone wants to avoid the short-term discomfort of having a conversation, but knows the conversation needs to happen.
The result of this is a feedback conversation that does take place … kind of. It happens, but in such an ineffective manner, that it is even worse than avoiding the feedback entirely. The person who delivers the sugarcoated feedback has the illusion that the feedback conversation took place, whereas the person on the receiving end did not receive the message. This results in no learning taking place, nothing actually getting changed, continued unmet expectations, and a whole lot of frustration and resentment for the person who thinks they gave someone feedback.
Leaders with people-pleasing tendencies are the most common users of sugarcoating; they are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, so they bury the message under sugar and spice and everything nice. If you sugarcoat feedback, the meaning of what you are saying won’t get through and in some extreme cases, the person on the other side of the conversation will mistake it as positive feedback and continue, repeat, or even double down on the precise thing you are trying to help them avoid, overcome, or change.
People want to get it right, generally. You don’t give people a chance to get it right if you sugarcoat.
Communication Mistake #5: Delivering Feedback Too Aggressively
Candor and courage are critical when it comes to feedback, but empathy and compassion are also important. Many leaders don’t consider the tone, language, or context when initiating difficult communication or offering feedback and can come across too harsh. The result can be a bruised relationship and unmotivated employees.
Indra Nooyi, former CEO and chairwoman at PepsiCo, talked about the importance to pay attention to how you balance being direct and pithy, and caring in a podcast episode by TED called Taken for Granted. She said, “I learned to use 10 more words to convey my message. And I think it was the best lesson I learned, because I think you’ve got to think about the message you’re sending and also how you’re sending the message, because ultimately, you’re talking to people, not to machines.”
Communication Mistake #6: Using a Feedback Sandwich
A form of sugarcoating, the feedback sandwich is never as delicious as it sounds. Why should you leave the feedback sandwich off the menu? Because it creates confusion.
Some recipients of the feedback sandwich will only hear the positive pieces of feedback, and the constructive pieces will go unnoticed. Meanwhile others will only focus on the negative feedback. All of the forms of feedback in your sandwich probably need to be communicated, but when you say them at once, one or the other gets lost.
Simply put, the conversation needs to focus on one or the other if you want the other person to leave the conversation having understood the message and clear on the next steps.
Communication Mistake #7: Choosing the Wrong Communication Channels
A little empathy goes a long way when considering which communication channel would be best for certain types of communication. Ask yourself if you would want to receive the communication you’re about to give over slack, email, or text. If the answer is no, you probably want to skip the digital platform for this conversation and head straight to the phone, video call, or even better would be a face-to-face conversation.
My personal philosophy is that difficult conversations should be actual conversations. There is too much left to interpretation when communicating in email or messaging apps, and better to be able to convey tone and facial expressions in the actual conversation.
Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language, said it best: “Picking up the phone is worth a thousand emails.” You need to know when an actual conversation will serve best – and most often for difficult communication and feedback conversations – it will.
Communication Mistake #8: Letting Yourself Get Hijacked by Your Emotions
One of the worst things you can do is to lose your cool in the middle of a difficult conversation. You have no control over how the other person will respond, or how their response may trigger you. The only thing you can control is yourself and how you respond in the conversation.
If you find cheeks getting hot, your voice starting to rise in volume, or your heart beating faster, it might be time to take a break. You want to ensure that you are guiding the conversation toward collaboration and if you allow your own emotions to hijack your leadership in the conversation, you run the risk of reacting rather than responding, and allowing the conversation to go off the rails.
If you find yourself getting emotionally dysregulated, it’s not you talking, it’s your amygdala. And your amygdala does not drive effective communication. When you communicate amid a temper tantrum, it can lead to the relationship being damaged and loss of trust that will take a while to earn back.
One thing that makes you at more of a risk of losing your cool, is letting a situation go too long without addressing it. Being timely with your communication and feedback helps you avoid letting it fester. When you let problems fester, it puts you at risk for snapping. Be hyper aware of your emotions and remember, you can always take a break.
Healthy Communication Habits vs. Common Communication Mistakes
This is by no means a complete or exhaustive list of communication mistakes, but it does touch on the most common mistakes I see leaders make in their communication.
Start to pay attention to which missteps you might be taking, and how to avoid those communication mistakes in the future and work toward healthier communication habits.
Join my monthly newsletter!
If you loved this article, join the monthly newsletter — featuring tips and reflections on leadership development and stress management in the modern world. Join the 5,000+ leaders who have it delivered straight to their inbox each month.
Join the monthly newsletter!
If you’re an executive, leader, or entrepreneur, you’ll love our monthly newsletters.