So what can a leader do? How can I prevent inaccurate perceptions and destructive reactions? The research suggests a broad and diverse array of actions.
1. Take responsibility for how your words and actions are perceived. Personal performance coach Joe Matthews suggests that new results must stem from new actions:
If you wish to create a new result, you must first design a new action. Albert Einstein said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again, expecting a different result." King Solomon said, "As a dog returns to its vomit, a fool returns to his folly." If you don't like your results in a given area of your work or life, pay careful attention to what you are now doing. Then cut it out. Jesus said, "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away."It is frustrating to deal with misunderstandings and misperceptions as a leader, but the wise leader will take it upon himself or herself to use search for and find new ways to communicate, ways that will prevent or reduce such problems in the future.
2. Make sure you know the people you lead. As we discussed in the previous posts on this subject, peoples’ needs and desires shape their perceptions. Therefore, it is incumbent on a leader to take the time and trouble to get to know the people he or she is leading and hopes to communicate to. What are they motivated by? What might their concerns be? How are they likely to react? Do they have enough background to rightly assimilate the information you hope to impart? Are you relying on a purely cognitive approach, or have you given thought to the motivations and emotions of your listeners?
3. Listen to rumors. I hate rumors and gossip. My natural tendency is to ignore them. But Dr. Robbins advises differently:
Rumors can be a major distraction for employees….Studies have found that rumors emerge as a response to situations that are important to us, where there is ambiguity, and under conditions that arouse anxiety….Astute managers acknowledge the existence of the grapevine and use it in beneficial ways. They use it to identify issues that employees consider important and that are likely to create anxiety. They view it as both a filter and feedback mechanism by highlighting issues that employees consider relevant….Managers should monitor grapevine patterns and observe which individuals are interested in what issues and who is likely to actively pass rumors along. In addition, managers need to reduce the negative consequences that rumors can create. If you come across an active rumor and think it has the potential to be destructive, consider how you might lessen its impact by improving organizational communication.One of the most effective means of minimizing destructive gossip and rumor is to speak directly with the person or persons who are spreading it. This isn't always possible, and it should always be done gently but firmly. Sometimes, however, it can often help people who are thus confronted remember to be more careful about such things in the future.
4. Make redundancy part of the communications strategy. Doug Turner, consultant and president of RSI Consulting, wrote the following in the context of pastors and church leaders casting vision regarding church stewardship, but it is nonetheless wise counsel pertaining to communication in general:
Churches often struggle because redundancy is not part of their communication strategy. In other words, communicating an update on the ministry requires so much more than one announcement or newsletter article.Too often, I make the mistake of expecting people to “catch” a message on the first (or second) time around. But that seldom (if ever) happens. Communication becomes more effective as it is repeated, preferably in multiple forms and via multiple media.
5. Choose communications channels intentionally and wisely.Obviously, some communications tools are better than others. Robbins points out:
Evidence indicates that channels differ in their capacity to convey information. Some are rich in that they have the ability to (1) handle multiple cues simultaneously, (2) facilitate rapid feedback, and (3) be very personal. Othera re lean in that they score low on these three factors. For instance, face-to-face talk scores highest in channel richness because it provides for the maximum amount of information to be transmitted during a communication episode. That is, it offers multiple information cues (words, postures, facial expressions, gestures, intonations), immediate feedback (both verbal and nonverbal), and the personal touch of “being there.” The telephone is another rich channel but less so than face-to-face communication. Impersonal written media such as bulletins and general reports rate low in richness. Email, instant messaging, and memos fall somewhere in between.6. Pay constant attention to sound communication techniques. Kenneth Gangel lists eight suggestions for improving communication. The wisdom of these principles should be even more obvious in light of the contributing factors mentioned above:
The choice of one channel over another should be determined by whether the message is routine or nonroutine….Managers…can communicate nonroutine messages effectively only by selecting rich channels.
Avoid verbal instructions alone. Use written memos or e-mail to reinforce and clarify oral communication whenever possible.Some of us do these things intentionally, even instinctively, in our preaching ministry...but too often we neglect them in other communication.
Use informal settings to facilitate dialogue. Try to break down the barrier that sometimes exists between a leader and the team.
Use careful planning before any group presentation. A pastor confronting the board with a building project, for example, should have carefully thought through how he will make the presentation, what possible questions might be raised, and how he will answer them.
Try to speak to small groups whenever possible. We can enhance good audience contact by limiting the size of the group.
Know the audience. Understand your team and speak directly to them.
Know your subject matter well. Do not attempt to bluff your way through a presentation.
Attempt to establish rapport with your people. Spend time with them; know and understand their problems and needs; and demonstrate interest and Christian love toward them as persons.
Be sincere. Genuine sincerity can cover and atone for a multitude of technical errors.
7. Communicate to address not only cognition, but also motivational and emotional processes.This is the biggest "takeaway" from the research, for me. I need to get better at doing more than simply sharing information on a cognitive level. Learn to address people’s needs, desires, fears, and hopes. Don't assume that just because you hear and process information cognitively, everyone else does.
8. Rely on feedback to gauge the effectiveness of your communication, and the recipient’s understanding. Donald P. Ely, a leading thinker in instructional technology, points out:
The degree of success which a given message has achieved can be determined by feedback. Feedback provides a teacher with information concerning his success in accomplishing his objective. The feedback may be covert or overt. A perceptive question stemming from the message is one of the simplest examples of feedback. The learner who asks a pertinent question indicates his degree of understanding. Most feedback is more complex, particularly in the case of value judgments and attitude changes which may not be as easy to process. A teacher should attempt to elicit feedback to determine how well he is achieving his purpose.Months ago, after running into (seemingly) one misperception after another, I started the practice of frequently concluding a dialogue with the questions, “What have you heard me to say during our time together?” and “Do you feel confident that I’ve listened to you, and heard what you’ve had to say?” This seems to have had an immediate and marked effect on the effectiveness of my communication.
Obviously, it is impossible to manage people’s perceptions with 100% accuracy. Even 80% or 90% may be unrealistic. But It should be realistic for any leader to vastly improve his or her effectiveness in this area. There will probably always be some who will—for any number of reasons—receive a message in ways the leader never intended. But I hope that will become rarer...as I become better at communicating so as to anticipate and shape perceptions.