Thanks to the frequent downpours, we’re experiencing soggy trails, mud puddles and saturated green fields in the woods where I frequently hike with my dog Gustav.
The creeks that were almost dried up a few months ago are now rushing with muddy water.
The water looks like many of the organizational messages I encounter. They’re sudden, murky and one directional.
Other individuals—especially employees on the receiving end—are noticing too and speaking up. I’ve heard an earful in the past few weeks from individuals at different organizations.
For example, high potential employees who participated in a survey and focus group I conducted commented that leaders’ words were too advanced for their actions.
The employees were willing to tolerate some aspirational comments, but the focus group participants said they wanted the words to do a better job of reflecting current reality.
At another organization, some employees who were participating in a workshop I was conducting complained that the messages in the training were different from what their leaders had told them.
They acknowledged the information they were hearing from me might be more current and accurate. But they preferred to get the messages from their leaders rather than an outsider.
Clarity is the “it” leadership skill, as described in the blog post 3 tips for leading with clarity. Bob Johansen, Patrick Lencioni and Karen Martin have all been writing about the need to communicate clear goals and directions.
When there’s so much ambiguity, it’s even more important to be clear about your intent. It’s also important to provide a sense of hopefulness.
However, you can’t promise certainty. No one knows exactly will happen at any step.
So how can you make your messages clear, without the murkiness of fast-moving creek water?
Try these five steps.
1. Pretest your messages in two ways. First run the Microsoft Word® readability statistics to see if your messages are in the right zone for your audience. (For information about this, see Be simple to get good test scores.)
Second, ask individuals for their opinions either informally or formally in focus groups. Are your messages understandable? Believable and credible? Supportable? Actionable?
For example, employees at one organization gave kudos for understandable messages, but questioned whether the leaders would be willing to act on them. That raised red flags about the credibility of the messages as well as the leaders.
2. Decouple your current messages with the old. Be explicit about the changes you’re making. Is the new message a total break from the past? Or, an adaptation?
Whatever, explain what’s the same, what’s different and what the implications are. For example, what should people stop doing? Start doing? Keep doing?
In retrospect, in advance of the workshop I conducted, the leader should have explained that we were changing course and that the workshop messages were the new playbook.
3. Provide road signs to give guidance. Make it easy for people to pay attention and follow you. Cut through the clutter and call out what you want and need individuals to do. Don’t bury your directions, or put other barriers in the way. We all have so much information coming at us so many hours of the day that it’s easy to overlook important requests.
4. Test for understanding. Check in with people to make sure they received your message. Then confirm that they understand what you are conveying, the context and the implications, especially the impact on them.
If your message included a call to action, you can measure the extent to which people are acting. Otherwise, you can do random checks of people. You also can call individuals to see the extent to which the message resonated.
The added benefit to these check-ins is that you can start to have more conversations, which will lead to improved understanding on both sides—the message sender and the message receivers.
5. Reinforce with words and actions. Watch your actions—and other leaders’ actions too— to make sure the actions are supporting the words you delivered. Ask others to help you if you’re concerned. And make a point to take specific actions that emphasize your words.
Achieving clarity isn’t easy. Yet, it’s worth taking the time to be clear with yourself and others. Others will appreciate your efforts and results. You save them time and improve their productivity.
How committed are you to clarity?