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I have read a lot of books on leadership. I have attended many leadership training sessions or keynote speeches. I have facilitated many hundreds of leadership training and coaching sessions.

Given all that education and experience, I am sure you will not be surprised to hear that the consistent message across all of the leadership education I have received and delivered is that the communication skills of a leader are, without a doubt, the core competency driving any leader’s effectiveness.

This was reinforced even more this week as I cleaned out my office and reviewed the contents of many files.

I came across a very old photocopied article, Communicating with Employees: What Works, What Doesn’t by Dr TJ Larkin, sent to me by my father just over six years ago. The title page notes that the article is sponsored by Institute of Personnel Management of Australia. Given that this was the name of the Australian Human Resources Institute until 1992 gives you some idea of how old this article is.

Regardless of the age of the article, it’s an absolute gem.

The article’s introduction states:

Communication should work. It should change employee behavior. Informing employees about things isn’t enough. 

What are companies doing to communicate and change employees? Is any of it working?

What great questions. The article goes on to say:

Nearly all communication surveys come up with the same results: 

  1. Employees want face-to-face communication.
  2. The person employees want to speak with, more than anyone else is their immediate supervisor.
  3. What employees want to know are the future plans for their local work area. Employees show little concern for company-wide issues. And employees do not see corporate financial results as particularly important information.

These are the facts of employee communication. They appear over and over in communication research … Employees want more face-to-face communication with their immediate supervisor discussing local workplace issues.

Twenty-five years later, and with the advent of the world wide web and accompanying technological advancement in the types of jobs we do and how they are done, do you think these results would still apply to today?

I say, almost certainly, yes.

The article ranks the effectiveness of different types of leadership communication as follows (top to bottom):

  1. Communicating shop floor issues
  2. Team briefing
  3. Communication and employee involvement
  4. MD talking to the troops
  5. Employee communication survey
  6. Communication corporate values

Why was ‘communicating shop floor issues’ at the top? Because (as the article states) ‘In Australia, effective communication must be based on employee, not senior management, values’.

In other words, the thing that is overwhelmingly of interest to an employee is what impacts their ability to do their work effectively and enjoyably each day.

For example, ‘excellence’ as a value might sound very motivating to a company’s executive team but unless an employee understands exactly what excellence in their job looks like, and they are provided with the resources necessary to deliver this excellence, then it’s all corporate jargon or gobbledygook to the employee.

The research case studies detailed in this article provide plenty of evidence that the communication skills of the people leading the coal face employees (typically called Team Leaders these days) are critical in generating employee behavior change.

Thinking back to my time as an employee (not in a leadership role), I can safely say that my ‘care index’ was, approximately, as follows:

  1. Myself (50%)
  2. My boss (20%)
  3. My immediate colleagues (20%)
  4. My colleagues elsewhere in the office (5%)
  5. My colleagues in other offices (3%)
  6. Directors/senior management (2%)

I would be surprised if most recruiters scored themselves any differently to this.

I was very fortunate in my formative years as an employee to have three excellent bosses, Kim Poole, Bridget Hamilton and Bronwyn Allen (now Savage) who were all excellent at communicating consistently, and overwhelmingly, about issues that had the biggest impact on how effectively my colleagues and I did our respective jobs.

Recent research published by The Society for Knowledge Economics supports exactly the point Dr Larkin makes in his article. As I wrote more than two years ago, this research involved interviewing 5,661 employees from 77 Australian organisations in order to understand what separated high performing workplaces (HPWs) from low performing workplaces (LPWs) and what financial difference resulted in having a high performance workplace. After a full analysis was undertaken 12 organisations were classified as HPWs and 13 organisations were classified as LPWs.

Comprehensive comparisons were then made between the two groups to identify how much financial difference there was between these two groups and what this difference was attributed to.

The standout result was that the profit margins of HPWs were nearly three times higher than LPWs (linked directly to HPWs having 23% lower staff turnover and 22% greater job satisfaction) and the single biggest difference in leadership behavior between the HPWs and the LPWs was that leaders in HPWs spend more time and effort managing their people than leaders in LPWs (29.3% higher).

The undeniable conclusion from both this recent research and Dr. Larkin’s article of the 1980s is:

The more time that team leaders spend with their team members and the more effectively these leaders communicate about workplace issues of immediate concern to the employee, the more likely it is that the employees will stay longer and perform at a higher level, compared to the average workplace.

How many recruitment agency owners and executives focus on both benchmarking and developing these crucial leadership communication skills in their frontline leaders? A small minority, I would suspect.

An investment in these skills could be the most effective way to improve your financial results in 2014.

What have you got to lose and what do you stand to gain?

Related articles:

Learning and development: the Netflix way

Motivating recruiters: Who’s responsible?

What’s in an effective leadership program? (and why it matters)

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