Main idea: Leaders must be able to help others make sense of internal business decisions and changes. How the information is interpreted can impact jobs, priorities, and investments. In this blog, I share the challenges associated with interpreting decisions and keeping teams aligned during times of change. I then present six attributes I’ve seen from leaders who are great at interpreting and communicating business changes.
There comes a time in your leadership journey when a critical business decision is made and then communicated outside of your control. Immediately you’re left scrambling to explain it to others. Your followers are asking what it means for them; they ask, "who is impacted?", "what else is coming?", and "what is the real reason for the decision?". They test you with their theories and connect the dots in an attempt to make sense of it all.
Welcome to your leadership job - Chief Interpreter.
There is a tremendous gap between what is communicated and how it is received within organizations. The burden falls on the leaders closest to execution. Followers read into the language and behaviors of their leaders to make sense of their surroundings.
Each individual who receives the message applies their own mental filter and fills in the missing information to craft their own story. They speculate what happened, anticipate what is to come next, and in turn share their interpretation with others. It can quickly turn into the famous Telephone Game on steroids. The potential damage from misinterpretation leads to confusion and lost opportunity that can linger on for years.
Leaders must translate the messages coming from all sides and what it means for others. This doesn't only apply to large scales changes either. Consider all the verbal and nonverbal interactions employees have with other leaders throughout the day. Each interaction and message is passing through someone’s mental filter and their story is being passed along to someone else.
The misunderstanding of these messages can have real unintended consequences.
A passing comment triggers new projects and initiatives that seem to spring up out of nowhere. People shift their priorities and energy based on what they heard. They second guess their current work and set a new course that they believe is aligned. They pursue new alliances and redistribute resources. I’ve witnessed this happen in the blink of an eye and it leaves executives shaking their head.
Unfortunately, companies don’t invest in training their leaders to become great interpreters. It is assumed that leaders know how to (1) effectively and consistently share information, (2) check for understanding with others, (3) drive alignment and (4) identify potential misunderstandings. This is critical because the basis of most our work comes from the acquisition, analysis, dissemination, and organization of information.
Leaders who ignore their role as Chief Interpreter put their own reputation at risk. Team members talk. They talk to each other and they talk to other members of the organization. They compare notes, share stories, and work hard to make sense of their surroundings. These behaviors by the team members reflect upon the leader. An important aspect of every leader’s job is to make sure their team is informed and aligned.
What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.
It’s easy not to fault any particular leader for not investing the time to interpret the information that is bombarding their team. The world of work moves fast, deadlines are constantly thrashing the boat, sharks are circling, and hurricane grade winds are pulling the team in different directions. Most followers are also not skilled in enabling their leaders the time and space to interpret what is happening in the organization.
Through a series of competitive strategy role-playing workshops that I designed and led years ago, this gap became clear to me. The purpose of the workshops was to improve strategy-alignment across functions. We also wanted to prepare leaders on how to communicate the business strategy to their teams. It didn't take long for us to discover how different the interpretations of the business strategy were. What was more startling, however, was how different the leaders' responses were to the clarifying questions.
Many business decisions struggle to get implemented because front-line leaders are often overlooked in the process. These leaders are the critical lynchpin needed to bring everyone along when business changes are uttered.
Here are the qualities I’ve observed of leaders who make great Chief Interpreters.
1. They never assume that everyone knows.
This is an easy mistake for a lot of leaders. A company-wide announcement goes out, an email from another function is forwarded, an executive makes a comment in a meeting… and because you heard it, everyone else must know it. This is the most common mistake that I’ve seen, and the easiest to address. The best leaders check in with all team members, reinforce the messages, and repeat.
2. They know that each person sees things differently.
Through my own research, I discovered that team members share less than 30% in common when asked how to execute a set of tasks and work together as a team. The implication is that team members are interpreting the task and teamwork differently. This leads to inefficiency, conflict, and mistakes. Great leaders create a shared meaning through effective use of metaphors, analogies, and stories. They take the time to ask follow-up questions, verify understanding, and create the conditions for team members to share what they heard.
3. They provide rationale.
Most communication focuses on ‘the what’ and leaves little to ‘the why’. The best leaders understand if they don’t explain ‘the why’ behind why decisions are made in the organization their followers will do it for them. They take the time and have the tenacity to find out why so it can be communicated with integrity and validity.
4. They speak to the process.
Once team members understand what happened and why the natural next question is how it happened. The best leaders don’t leave it to others to speculate. They know that speculation on how decisions were made often leads to toxic and unhealthy behaviors. They take initiative to find out how a decision was made. They take the time to explain the series of events that led up to the communication.
5. They provide context.
Most business decisions are not made in a vacuum and they don’t impact all groups and people equally. The best leaders seek to understand the bigger picture to provide context for decisions. They proactively reach out to peers to understand how it impacts other functions. They know that sharing this with team members leads to a more inclusive sense of team and loyalty to the larger organization.
6. They personalize the message.
Each team member looks at the organization through a particular lens relative to their role. Individuals have different goals, needs, and expectations. The best leaders make the connection between business decisions and the individual. Ultimately, team members want to understand what it means to them.
Call to Action
Consider the above attributes and which items could use more of your focus. What would you add to the list above?
Thanks for taking the time to read. I hope you will consider giving the post some likes and shares, it’s the fuel that keeps me writing.
About the author:
Kris Potrafka, Ph.D. is the Founder and CEO of Music Firsthand, a music technology start-up. He is a former operations and HR executive working with leaders to solve complex organizational development challenges. Follow Kris on Medium and connect with him on LinkedIn.