Over the last few years we have witnessed and been affected by a series of issues and events that have left us, and the rest of the world, uncertain and unclear about our individual and collective futures.
Millions of people lost money they were assured was secure during the 2008 global financial crisis. We had been led to believe that our money, when invested in property was – well – as safe as houses. The crisis turned this feeling of security on its head and across the globe those affected still do not know who to trust and where to put their money.
Ordinary, law abiding citizens struggle to find confidence and assurance from their governments as the rule of law is overridden by movements that employ the use of aggressive and violent means brought to life through manipulation of the masses. We have seen this in Egypt, England, throughout the European Union and more. Where is their governing power? Who do we turn to if even they can’t keep us safe?
And day after day we hear stories of crime and corruption. These are not reports filled with the names of gang leaders, crime bosses, or the everyday criminal, but rather of businessmen, civic leaders and politicians. No organization is exempt. No office is incorruptible. Moral and ethical fallibility seems to be the order of the day.
It is in this world that we find ourselves called upon to lead – a tall order in the past, now more difficult and increasingly complex. While many of these events may have happened thousands of kilometers away, we would be naive to think that in this world of social media and instant messaging that the effects on society, its culture and confidence would be localized.
So how do we overcome events that seem to have pierced to the very heart of our global society? How do we rein in and calm this galloping runaway horse?
As I have met with a number of leaders recently, the most notable – especially given the context of this article – being leaders from large multinational mining houses who are currently facing difficulties and situations few would have the courage to take on, there is a common solution that has been repeated over and over again.
It isn’t flowery, it isn’t innovative or ground breaking, there are no bells and whistles, and it isn’t just the latest craze.
Rather, billions rely on it every day to finalize transactions as commonplace as deciding what to eat for dinner, or as exceptional as a large organizational merger or acquisition. Through the employment of this solution, businesses have remained competitive, products become relevant and pioneering, marriages are saved, trends are identified, catastrophes avoided, and lives changed.
What is it? In the words of Anglo Platinum’s CEO, Chris Griffith to us in a recent meeting: “In this current environment, you need to engage more, and more, and more, and more…the changing face of business worldwide means that leaders need to spend more time engaging with all stakeholders.”
When we speak of engaging we are in fact talking about top quality, effective communication.
So how does effective communication and engagement reduce uncertainty and inspire confidence?
May I suggest three effects that are felt as a result of this communication and engagement we are talking about, and a technique or two that top leaders use to instill this confidence?
A Calming Effect
Alan Knott-Craig, founder and former CEO Vodacom, and the current CEO of Cell C believes that decisions need to be made quickly and confidently. Griffith agrees with this when he says that leaders must “…limit the time that people are unsure. Do all the difficult things as quickly as possible.” We must also address things in a manner that shows followers that there is collective involvement and movement forward. Fred Rogers, the American educator and minister said it this way:
“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”
Calm your people by using words like “we”, “our”, “together”, and “united”.
Ambiguity is defined as: “being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness.” (oxforddictionaries.com)
There is nothing that creates more confidence in a follower than listening to a leader who knows where he or she is going and how they are going to get there. In Rogers’ quote above, he speaks of removing unknowns and allowing others to become familiar with the facts and potential issues faced – “they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” As people are able to process and deal with these details, they are far more likely to respond positively. If not, you may face people who are reacting emotionally to unknowns.
Effective communicators take into consideration factors such as the upbringing of their audience, and the effect of cultural, education, and social influences as they strive to engage with their audiences. They know who they are talking to and how they must do so. In her article The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why (Harvard Business Review, Sept 1995), Deborah Tanner, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington DC, stated it this way:
“Communication isn’t as simple as saying what you mean. How you say what you mean is crucial, and differs from one person to the next, because using language is learned social behavior. How we talk and listen is deeply influenced by cultural experience. Although we might think that our ways of saying what we mean are natural, we can run into trouble if we interpret and evaluate others as if they necessarily felt the same way we’d feel if we spoke the way they did.”
Effective engaging and communication may not be the vogue or impressive solution many might be searching for as a means to address the lack of confidence many feel towards their leaders, but it is the answer to which top leaders are returning.
In the end, leadership is about developing influence and being able to use that influence to move people. One cannot influence anyone without first connecting with them. And in a world where we claim to be more interconnected than ever, people are feeling less and less connected.
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