Bellevue, WA—Although the link between leadership and effective communication has long been acknowledged, developing the latter is still easier said than done. At the 2015 annual meeting of the National Organization of Rheumatology Managers (NORM), Tracy L. Spears, CEO of the Exceptional Leaders Lab, discussed the importance of this seemingly elusive skill, offering straightforward strategies that can be applied immediately in one’s practice—increasing teamwork and employee productivity in the process.
For Ms Spears, understanding communication begins with the 4 stages of learning. The first stage, unconscious incompetence, is an individual’s lack of awareness of his or her own incompetence. Or as Ms Spears put it: “You have no idea that you have no idea.”
A hands-on demonstration—simple to visualize but not so simple to execute—provided the explanation. From head to hip, on both sides of her body, Ms Spears shifted her right hand and her left—simultaneously but asymmetrically.
Okay, maybe it is not so easy to visualize, but it is even harder to execute. The point was, the audience was firmly ensconced in the second stage of learning—conscious incompetence.
“Now you’re aware that you’re not very good at something,” Ms Spears laughed, as people struggled in vain against the flailing of their own limbs.
You might be wondering, What does this have to do with leadership?
“Too often we bring people into our practice with great expectations, and we thrust them into an environment that’s a little different than how they’ve ever operated before,” Ms Spears explained.
In other words, new employees frequently find themselves stuck, like the audience, at stage 2 of the process. Getting people over this hump of the learning curve is thus a critical part of leadership. Some thrive in an unfamiliar environment, summoning vast reserves of inner motivation. Others flounder. The trick is to identify those who are suffering but unable to reach out and address that state of initial anxiety.
“Effective communication involves empathy,” said Ms Spears, “but it’s also about reinforcing expectations.”
Whether helping a fledgling hire gain competence in a new role or addressing those members of the team who are underperforming for other reasons, leadership demands practice in what Ms Spears calls the crucial conversation.
“A crucial conversation,” said Ms Spears, “is one in which, if you don’t have the conversation, things are not going to better.”
Because we naturally avoid confrontation in our lives, Ms Spears simplified the process, offering an easy-to-follow outline for these necessary exchanges.
The script goes as follows:
- Explain the reason for the meeting.
- This concerns me because….
- Confirm the individual’s understanding of the issue.
- Make a clear coaching recommendation.
- Confirm the recommendation and have the individual repeat it back.
- Set up a review time.
- Clarify your confidence in the person.
Although mastery of the crucial conversation is challenging, to avoid it altogether is to risk compromising the culture of your practice.
“The number one problem that people have in leadership,” Ms Spears explained, “is [not] having a crucial conversation. What makes somebody a great leader is having the ability to take someone who is underperforming and to inspire them to perform at a higher level.”
Great leaders have this conversation, said Ms Spears, helping their employees transition to stage 3 of the learning process (conscious competence) and, ultimately, to the mastery of stage 4 (unconscious competence).
When it comes to the hands trick, however, I’m still stuck on stage 2.