Communications styles of younger workers point the way to a more effective managerial style, says Brunswick’s Gertrud Kohl.
Long years of service and experience count for little if you can’t communicate effectively with your team—and that means understanding how they communicate with each other. As a leader, you have to be prepared to make the most of the rapid-fire changes in the area of corporate communications. Some of them may not be obvious.
The older generation, who have naturally assumed leadership positions based on long years of experience, are the ones most at risk of falling behind—ignoring the implications of a particular medium or mode of communicating that millennials and younger employees understand intuitively. They represent the fastest growing and probably the largest part of your workforce.
As digital natives, they recognize the differences in styles of communication intuitively. A leader offering a simple “Great job!” to an employee on LinkedIn, or liking an employee’s post, means something different than an internal congratulatory email. A seemingly off-the-cuff tweet may carry more weight with some audiences than a carefully worded press release.
But such differences also represent a different way of being in the world, a different set of expectations for communication and leadership. Being able to navigate these spheres effectively isn’t a superficial skill, but an expression of caring—a message in itself.
For leaders, that is an important insight. The thought and time it takes to create an engaging post on a particularly relevant medium go a long way toward demonstrating that a leader understands the world employees live in. And it also points out how other aspects of the boss-employee relationship might benefit from a refreshed approach to communications.
Leadership is Communication
Writing in 1989, US researchers Kevin Barge and Randy Hirokawa arrived at the conclusion that communication must actually be considered a prerequisite of leadership. “Leadership occurs through the process of interaction and communication,” they wrote. Similarly, German researcher Anja Blaschke in 2008 emphasized that “leading people means communicating with them”—a seemingly obvious point, all too easily overlooked in the moment. In 2002, researchers David Clutterbuck and Sheila Hirst went even further, defining leadership by the quality of communication: “Leaders who do not communicate well are not really leading at all. It is one thing to have the position, another to fulfill the role.”
Many employees regard their own supervisor as the most important communication partner in the company or organization. And today, those supervisors act as advisors in all matters, as motivators and role models, and as sparring partners for common issues. This represents an important time commitment—making direct, dynamic involvement with employees a priority in the work week. Moderating team meetings and distributing tasks are by no means enough.
Successful leadership communication can be defined as a very personal phenomenon that helps define the relationship between superiors and employees; it expresses itself situationally and it is a two-way street—neither completely leader- nor follower-centered. Rather, a constructive leadership style must emphasize shared values and objectives.
This last year has been a critical test in that respect. The increasing pace of change in the work environment over the last decade has increased the demands on leadership communications and the pandemic has only shifted that process into a higher gear. With most employees working remotely, there is greater pressure for leadership styles to be creative.
With communication being a fundamental component of leadership, one could assume leaders within the communications industry would certainly understand the terms. Yet even there, young workers seem dissatisfied with their bosses in many cases—as a study conducted by the University of Leipzig under the direction of Prof. Dr. Ansgar Zerfaß showed in 2020. The research found that just under half of the respondents (46.6 percent) said that their immediate supervisor would be a good leader, while 33.6 percent were partially satisfied and 19.8 percent complained about poor leadership quality.
Born in the ’80s or later, these workers have grown up in the milieu of social media. They are used to participating in every discussion and having their concerns acknowledged and appreciated. They are fluent enough in the languages of social media that they will reflexively judge the tone of a communication—and spot insincerity in an instant.
Naturally, these employees are going to have fairly specific expectations of leadership. A leadership style appropriate for Baby Boomers and Gen-X-ers doesn’t work well for them and could prove counterproductive to your business. On the other hand, what works for them can also enrich leadership communications with the older generation.
All people have a primal desire for trust. This applies to relationships of all kinds, including leadership relationships. And it isn’t generation-specific. We all strive for trust, gained through respect and appreciation for us and our work.
To build a trusting relationship, leaders should communicate openly, authentically and honestly at all times, and expect the same in return. This does not mean that leaders have to know many private details of their employees in order to communicate openly with them, but it does mean that in the work context, relevant activities, projects, processes and equally challenges, problems—and yes, also mistakes—must be discussed as transparently as possible. Mistakes happen. We are all human. What is crucial is the way we deal with them.
Listening and flexibility are crucial to building trust. Young workers want their supervisors to provide them with a structure where they can feel safe, and where they can safely share their thoughts and be heard. They don’t want to be monitored at every step, but rather to be trusted to do their best. Flexibility and transparency generate trust in leadership communication and can ultimately lead to a better work performance.
Leaders are more and more seen as important coaches. That doesn’t mean they have an answer to every question. Instead they help guide their employees to the right question and a path to finding the answer. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, John Hagel notes this approach requires a certain realistic humility: “You think you have the answers to all important questions? That suggests that you are either clueless—you have no idea how rapidly the world is changing—or that you are lying. In either case, you won't find that trust that you've been looking for.”
At base, this aspect of trust-building is all about empathy, the art of being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. In order to build up an honest, emotional relationship with employees, the leader’s ability to empathize is indispensable—especially when dealing with younger generations, who are even more eager to experience genuine support for their own professional and private development.
Empathetic leadership must include negative criticism of course, or it risks appearing dishonest. People want to receive not only positive but also appropriate negative feedback. In a typical team, not everyone’s wishes and expectations can be achieved. The leader decides how to achieve a common good and guides the team members toward it in the most constructive way possible.
The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2019 found that just under half of the millennials surveyed would leave their job within the next two years if given the opportunity. For about a third, the reason would be a lack of opportunities to learn, grow and develop.
From a leader perspective, providing the kind of atmosphere where growth can occur can be a bit scary. It means letting go of the reins, handing over responsibility—empowering your employees. But true empowerment means not just granting them the freedom to act, but also encouraging them, motivating them toward successful achievement. This gives them the opportunity to grow, a greater appreciation for the work and a greater sense of personal accomplishment. Upon completion, detailed feedback sessions where leaders and employees can exchange views about the project can build confidence in the approach for both sides. After all, leaders need critical feedback too—they want to develop and enhance their leadership skills.
Leadership across the board benefits from these foundational practices, regardless of the age of your employees. One of the goals of leadership should be to foster a healthy interaction among the various generations represented by your team. Reverse mentoring can be a constructive option, if, for example, the boss is a non-digital native who needs to catch up in terms of digital communication.
To honor and engage with your employees in this way, through trust, empathy and empowerment, is to see them for who they are and who they can be, to maximize their potential as individuals and as a team. Success means you’ve also maximized your effectiveness as a leader.
Gertrud Kohl is an Account Director with Brunswick based in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.