The Key To Communicating Better As A Leader? Resilience
Every vehicle has a “crash test rating.” Since 1959 this score provides details on vehicle safety to help consumers make better vehicle purchases. But what goes into this score? To develop each rating, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety evaluates:
the “crashworthiness,” how well a vehicle protects drivers/occupants, and “crash avoidance and mitigation” how the car can prevent a crash or reduce its impact.
Essentially, the score dictates to what extent the car will “bounce back” after a crash. The manufacturers can choose what elements to include in building a vehicle that might improve its rating.
The “crash test rating” is what Pat Fahey thinks of when asked about resilience. Pat is the Senior Director Energy Resources at Springerville Generating Station, and I recently had the opportunity to connect with him about culture transformations. As an electrical engineer by trade, he’s led his team through significant culture transformations, where he himself had to change his habits to build his team’s resilience. I learned was how vital resilience is to help leaders in communication.
Recent research shows that “effective leader communication” remains an essential leadership skill. Yet, often leaders fail to communicate effectively and risk doing damage to their team or broader stakeholders. Why is this the case? Through my conversation with Pat, I learned how much work it takes to improve one’s communication style and why resilience helps strengthen communication skills. We also discussed how to change one’s communication style, why it’s important, and how to build resilience as a leader and a team.
Here are the lessons learned:
1) Effective leadership communication starts with self-awareness
For Pat, it was only after his company underwent a significant cultural transformation that he became self-aware of his communication style. He learned that while his employees were good at their work, they worked not because they wanted to but because they felt they had to. Knowing this sparked his revelation that he was not truly listening. In any conversation, Pat mentioned, he “jumped ahead to “recommendations” instead of taking the time to hear the other person.” Recognizing this habit sparked his journey of changing how he communicates, creating visible results for himself and the organization.
Everyone has different communication styles. “A leaders’ job is to understand their team and become flexible to individual communication style. Self-awareness first asks, “who do I want to be as a leader?” and then asking “does that person come across in how I communicate?”
2) Good listening requires resilience
It became evident to me early in our conversation that Pat is a patient leader who works to communicate well. So, I asked Pat if this comes naturally. “I am NOT a patient person,” he replied. “As an engineer by trade, I have high confidence in my ability to fix just about anything. So, to NOT solve the problem right away was challenging and required patience.” Over time, he developed strategies to help overcome these problem-solving tendencies, including:
1) Seek to learn the type of conversation you are having. Begin with asking: “Is this a problem-solving session or a listening session?”. Defining the expectations of a conversation is crucial to ensuring a positive outcome for both parties.
2) Remind yourself to go last. Pat mentioned that he regularly reminds himself “don’t talk, just wait” and waits till the end to say anything. Doing so helps him ensure all parties feel heard. He also recommends using a notepad during conversations to keep from speaking prematurely — he jots down “thought bubbles” to remind himself what to discuss at the end.
3) Check your “listening assumptions.” Pat warns against assuming you have “heard correctly.” He advocates for “three-part communication,” which involves: listening, repeating back what you’ve heard, and receiving confirmation from the other party. Other mechanisms he uses include probing questions, such as “Well, tell me more about that.”
3) Know when you’re not ok.
We are human: we have bad days, things go wrong, or people that frustrate us. I asked Pat how he remains resilient in his relationships on these bad days.
1) Have an outlet. “All leaders need a safe place to discuss frustrations. For me, it’s members of my leadership team and my wife. I go to these individuals when I am tired or annoyed and discuss how I feel in a healthy manner, instead of unleashing these on my team members.”
2) Have “hold-off moments.” “Simply communicating “Now is not a good time for me to have this conversation” does wonders,” says Pat. He warns against putting yourself in situations where your employees might experience negative outcomes and recommends delaying conversations as a powerful strategy.
3) Embrace vulnerability. For Pat, the most critical lesson in improving his communication was embracing vulnerability. He now shares with his team when he doesn’t know something, when something upsets him, or even when he makes mistakes. “Showing that I make mistakes doesn’t give the impression that mistakes are acceptable, but instead allows others to feel safe to share them so we can solve the problem as a team.”
4) How you communicate dictates the strength of your team.
Pat’s journey of being resilient in his communication was a long, difficult process that is still ongoing. I asked him, “why even bother?”. His answer: “I like to think of it like a basketball team. You have five players on the court — a point guard, a shooting guard, a small forward, a big forward, and a center — five unique individuals on the team — not one more important than the other. So, if it’s late in the game, and one player gives up, the whole team is done. That’s where resiliency comes in.” It’s imperative to ensure the team’s safety and be aware of when your team is struggling. Part of being a leader is picking up the employees when they aren’t resilient but doing so in a patient and encouraging manner.
“It’s easy to fall into the belief that because we are in formal leadership positions, we are automatically leaders. This isn’t the case. The truth is, learning how to lead takes work. As a leader, it is not my choice to lead my team. It’s their choice to be led by me.” — Pat Fahey
Effective communication is the first step to building this resiliency — and it takes work — but with time, you can develop your team to pass any crash test.
Overall, I learned from Pat to:
1) Become aware of your communication habits — both good and bad. Ask yourself — do these reflect who I want to be as a leader?
2) Be intentional, resilient, and relentless in improving how you communicate.
3) Don’t expect perfection — give yourself an outlet on bad days, and embrace vulnerability.
According to Pat, “no matter how good your product, manufacturing process, or operations are, it’s people that make things happen. That’s why it’s worth taking the time to develop and improve relationships with your people to help the entire organization work better, safer, and happier.”
Across the country and the world, we will differ in our pandemic experiences and our views of how to manage the pandemic. When asked about how these skills will be useful in the future, Pat emphasized the need for us to develop respect for differing views and learn how to resolve conflict in this emerging era. Being resilient in how we communicate dictates how we “bounce back” from this crisis. Taking the time to listen, be patient, and encourage vulnerability will help us emerge as a stronger nation.
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 15 Common Leadership Communication Problems (And How To Correct Them) (forbes.com)