Leadership Strategies for Overcoming Communications Challenges in Today’s Workplace

Marissa Levin
Marissa Levin
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In my work with my CEO clients, one of the first things we do together is re-visit the company’s core values, mission statement, and vision statement. Quite often, CEOs want to list “communication” as a core value to demonstrate commitment to healthy positive communication with internal and external stakeholders. Naming communications as a core value is easy. Living it is hard.

A typical workplace day opens up many possibilities for difficult conversations and misunderstandings.  Quite often, people are under pressure, on deadlines, and stressed, which can all contribute to a challenging work environment. In addition, in today’s environment, much of our communications revolves around technology. Email and texting has replaced traditional conversations, and many meetings now take on a virtual format through conference calls and webinars to join disparate locations. While technology has certainly sped up workplace efficiency, it has also opened the door for miscommunication and misunderstanding. People often “speak” without thinking, and once a text or email is sent, it can not be retracted.

One of the most accomplished communications experts I know is my good friend Steven Gaffney, an expert in honest communication, and author of numerous books and publications including: “Just Be Honest,” “Honesty Works!” “Honesty Sells,” “Guide to Increasing Communication Flow Up, Down, and Across Your Organization,” “21 Rules for Delivering Difficult Messages,” and his newest book, “Be A Change Champion: Mastering Momentum.”

Steven Gaffney’s work has been sought out by a diverse range of leaders including top military officers and executives of multinational organizations such as Marriott, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, BP, SAIC, Citigroup, Allstate Insurance, Defense Logistics Agency, Northrop Grumman, Best Buy, NASA, the U.S. Navy, American Express, General Dynamics, the U.S. Marine Corps, Barrick Gold Corporation, Booz Allen Hamilton, and many others.

I consulted Steven to learn how leaders can keep communications in the workplace positive and moving forward, even in difficult circumstances.

What are the biggest communications challenges you are seeing in the workplace today, and how do they impact the ability to lead effectively?

The number one problem is the lack of open honest communication. In fact, according to the research as well as my own experience working with many top companies, 80% of workplace problems are caused by lack of open and honest communication. What I mean by open and honest communication being the big problem is that it’s not what people say, it is what they don’t say to each other.  After all, you can’t solve a problem that you don’t know about, and you cannot use an idea that nobody tells you about. When people share issues and ideas, organizations are able to move with speed and become more innovative.

How does negative communication impact an organization’s bottom line?

I define negative communication as, “communication in which people say why things won’t work without any ideas of what could work.” They complain, engage in passive-aggressive behavior, and create drama. Besides causing immense amounts of distraction, this unmotivates, disengages, and creates turnover within an organization. All of which impacts focusing on what needs to be done moving forward and growing the business. After all, complaints without solutions are just adding to the problem. If this type of behavior is not corrected it easily becomes a cancer within the organization which can spread and severely impact the bottom line.

What are some strategies leaders can use to prevent negative communications from creating a toxic culture?

There are many strategies we teach to help out organizations. One of the most powerful is for leaders to model the behavior they seek. Leaders need to demonstrate and reward the right behaviors, and hold others accountable when the wrong behaviors are being done. More specifically, leaders need to create what I call an “honest communication growth culture,” In which there are 3 elements:

  1. People share 3 I’s and an A – information, issues, ideas, and appreciations
  2. People take responsibility and are accountable- when problems happen they look at themselves first and try to find cause not blame
  3. People proactively contribute solutions, not just complaints

What are some strategies leaders can use to stop negative communication once it has started, and minimize the impact it can make?

There are many strategies that can be applied to this topic. One of the most important strategies is to catch this negative behavior early before it spreads. One of the interesting things I have found is that leaders are often afraid to confront this behavior, and unfortunately silence rewards current behavior. So when people are silent it sends the wrong message, and that this behavior is okay. Some of the best leaders I have worked with are clear on their non-negotiables, constantly ask for ideas and solutions on how to improve the situation, and consistently discuss the growth culture I described earlier.

Using communications, how can a leader regain the trust of his/her employees if it has been damaged?

Three essential steps need to be taken:

  1. Apologize and take full responsibility for what has happened; in other words the buck stops here mentality
  2. Be specific and share what is going to be different to correct the problem and to rebuild trust (Often people use platitude statements like work harder, be better and to the receiver that is code language to the same thing is going to happen again next time)
  3. Do what you say you are going to do in step number 2, because ultimately the backbone to building trust is doing what you say you are going to do.

The most important building block of any leadership foundation is trust. Trust occurs only in environments and in relationships where open and honest communication thrives.

Next week, Steven will share communications strategies that employees can use to demonstrate trustworthiness, so that they have ample opportunities to move into higher levels of responsibility within their organization.  Until then, please visit www.stevengaffney.com  to get additional tips on creating the most communicative workplace environment in your organization.

Good luck!



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About Successful Culture
We work with business owners, CEOs, and leadership teams that want to achieve their greatest personal & organizational potential. Through coaching, strategic consulting, retreat facilitation, and workshops, we equip leaders & emerging leaders with the mindset, tools, strategies, and processes they need to excel.

Ready to move forward? Email us today at [email protected].

Connect with me on Instragram, Facebook, and Twitter. Engage with me during my morning Periscope sessions as well (@marissalevin).

Please check out my Inc. Magazine columns on my Author Page too.
– In my latest Inc, article, I share The Essential Guide to Avoiding Workplace Text, Email, & Social Media Disasters.
– Learn about the 9 Leadership Behaviors that Lose Employee Trust & Respect here.

~Marissa Levin
CEO, Successful Culture
“Taking Leaders from Triage to Transformation.”

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