The leaders I coach have all the right stuff. They’re smart, driven, and can articulate a clear vision of how their company should operate. But those same success factors are a breeding ground for overconfidence, blindspots, and cognitive biases that diminish their ability to communicate effectively and achieve peak performance from their teams.
When was the last time a communication issue negatively affected you, your team, and/or your firm’s performance? Odds are, it happened within the past few days, if not the past few hours! The cost of ineffective communication and misunderstanding is astounding, whether in terms of time, money, reputation, and/or energy. As you think about this more deeply, I have little doubt you’ll find examples of supporting evidence on your team and throughout your organization. Even worse, count on additional negative impact below the surface, as a lack of clarity invisibly erodes morale and teamwork.
The curse of knowledge and the Dunning-Kruger effect are two cognitive biases that invisibly reduce our effectiveness as communicators. We need to understand them before learning how to work around them.
The curse of knowledge occurs when you unconsciously assume others have the same information and understanding as you. This is why, for example, a game of Pictionary can be so frustrating! The person drawing the picture knows what they’re trying to communicate, but since the observers lack the same information or context, it is considerably more difficult for them to ascertain the message.
The result of this cognitive bias is that leaders tend to communicate less frequently and with less detail than they should. An executive who directs their team to “become more efficient at processing customer orders,” for example, might understand all the steps needed to make it happen. Their team, on the other hand, hears a vague order and does their best to interpret it and execute. The path from here is depressingly predictable: over time, the leader becomes frustrated because their team isn’t prioritizing or executing as expected.
The Dunning-Kruger effect causes us to overestimate our competence or knowledge in a given domain. The domain of communication is at the top of the list for business leaders.
Studies have shown that the lower your competency in a field, the more overconfident you are in your abilities. “If you are incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent,” David Dunning wrote in his book, Self Insight. In other words, you can’t know what you don’t know, which makes Dunning-Kruger the ultimate blindspot for each of us.
Because of these cognitive biases, every leader I’ve met thinks they are great at communicating. For example, when I ask executives if they think they’re in the top 20% of communicators at their firm, almost all say yes.
Statistically, that’s impossible!
Especially because under-communication is one of the most prevalent and costly issues in business. The problem is, we leaders think we’re pretty good at it, and yet there are piles of evidence and never-ending complications that point to the exact opposite conclusion.
Here are three easy-to-implement, highly effective tools to help you bypass your cognitive biases, become a more effective communicator, and improve your firm’s performance. They are: Commander’s Intent, Role Accountability, and Meeting Rhythms.
Commander’s Intent is a military concept with origins in the German army during the 19th Century. The gist is that before a leader describes a detailed plan of attack to his or her troops, they must first articulate an overall view of the mission’s goal. For example, “take hill XYZ by 4:00 pm tomorrow so the caravan of supplies can get to the forward base after sunset.”
Commander’s Intent is important because nothing ever goes 100% according to plan. When an aspect of a plan inevitably falls apart, people need to know what the overall purpose is so they can improvise and continue moving forward. As such, the context of the plan is as important as the details of the plan.
Many leaders focus communication on WHAT and HOW, but fail to describe WHY something matters. This lack of context is a real handicap for the team because it forces them to become dependent on the leader when things inevitably go awry.
Here’s an example of what I mean: One of the leadership team’s topics at a recent client meeting was to create an agenda for an upcoming two-day retreat for their 20 sales managers. The head of sales suggested the leadership team brainstorm activities, and was getting ready to open the floor for suggestions when I stopped him. “What does good look like?” I asked. “When you walk out the door at the end of the second day, what do you want to have accomplished?”
The leadership team was missing Commander’s Intent for the brainstorming activity. Although the head of sales understood the retreat’s purpose himself, without first communicating it to his team, they were going to fall into the trap of an inefficient, unfocused conversation as they tried to develop a high-stakes agenda.
Without skipping a beat, the head of sales articulated four broad objectives for the sales manager retreat, including a desire to have managers interact with colleagues they’d never met before, and leave the conference feeling aligned with the direction of the firm. Once the team understood the overall purpose, the brainstorm session that followed was highly productive.
Use Commander’s Intent at the beginning of every project, initiative, and activity—whether you’re making broad, strategic decisions about your firm’s direction, or small, tactical moves like creating a meeting agenda. Commander’s Intent provides clarity and improves performance because it provides context, improves focus, and allows people to improvise more independently when something unexpectedly derails the plan.
Leaders become frustrated when individuals on their team don’t perform, but I’ve found that it’s often a result of unclear role definitions and accountability. If people don’t understand what is expected of them in their role, how can you as their leader expect them to consistently deliver? Role Accountability improves communication and performance by clarifying the outcomes and results associated with every role in the organization.
Most organizations I’ve encountered are activity-focused. When I ask a salesperson what her role is, for example, she’ll typically answer with verbs—things like calling prospective clients, qualifying prospects, writing proposals, and closing deals. Yes, activities can be important, but only as pathways to concrete outcomes, which are nouns, not verbs. If this salesperson was on my payroll, I’d much rather hear her say that her role is to achieve revenue, gross margin, and a number of new clients targets.
It’s on the leader to be able to clearly communicate to every employee what is expected of their role. If you don’t establish a universally understood performance standard for every role (think outcomes/nouns), it’s not only difficult to hold people accountable, but it’s also much more challenging to coach them to improve their performance over time.
Role Accountability must start at the top. Clarity and alignment in an organization flow in one direction: down. The further away from senior leadership you go, the less clear everything becomes. For example, even when there’s precise clarity and alignment on the executive team, I expect to see a bit less at every level descending through the organization’s ranks. On the other hand, when there’s poor clarity and alignment at the top, by the time you reach the front lines, people have absolutely no idea what’s going on!
Here’s how to create a Role Accountability card for each role in your firm, division, group, or team. Start with your own direct reports and give each team member a 3×5 index card. Ask them to write their role (not their name!) at the top and then answer the question, “what are the three most important results the company expects you to deliver in exchange for paying your salary?” Be sure to lead by example and participate yourself to define the outcomes for your role as well!
Now the fun begins, because this exercise pushes your team to get it right. They will ask plenty of questions! “What do you mean by results?” or “What if I can’t measure what I do?” Reassure them that there are always measurable results–because if there weren’t the company wouldn’t be willing to pay a salary for their activities! Throughout this process, beware of verbs and look for nouns. Have the team draft their accountability cards and share their answers in the meeting, then follow-up with 1-on-1 conversations to edit and tune them into alignment with the outcomes on your card, which should be at the highest level for the organization or team you lead.
This process defines accountability by role, not by person, so if one member of your team occupies two roles–like perhaps a Controller who is also the Head of IT–they should produce an accountability card for each distinctive role. For roles with multiple seats, there’s still just one card for the role, so a team of six salespeople would share a single Role Accountability card for the salesperson role.
Once your team’s Role Accountability cards are in place, there will be clarity and alignment that wasn’t there before. This translates into a more aligned focus on the “right” things. After this is completed for your team, have each of your team members execute this same process with their teams, and so on–one level at a time–until you have a Role Accountability card for every seat in the organization.
Information is the lifeblood of your organization and the Meeting Rhythms tool ensures that you, your team, and every employee are in sync. Just like we rely on the flow of our circulatory system to keep our cells nourished and functioning, you must ensure information flows throughout your firm consistently and effectively.
Although there are numerous meeting rhythms you should establish to maintain a healthy communication flow, for brevity, the two I will prioritize here are the daily huddle and the weekly meeting.
The purpose of the daily huddle is synchronization. It never ceases to amaze me how disjointed people are without a huddle, even though they literally work side-by-side for eight hours a day! Huddles are critical to the performance of your organization.
An effective huddle should last less than 10 minutes, and it’s an opportunity for everyone on the team to synchronize: to know what’s going on, where people will be, who needs help, and what issues might be brewing. The huddle is NOT a forum for problem solving or debating issues—rather, it’s a touch point so the left hand knows what the right is doing.
Daily huddles should also reinforce your firm’s culture. I instruct my coaching clients to have one person in each huddle tell a non-heroic core values story every day, which is a foundational culture-building element over time.
I’ve yet to encounter a client whose organization has not been significantly transformed by the addition of well-run daily huddles. They find there are fewer surprises, less drama, and fewer 1-on-1 meetings and interruptions throughout the day.
The weekly meeting replaces your huddle one day each week. It’s an hour-long session where you and your direct reports discuss metrics, the progress of broader initiatives, and the opportunities and challenges associated with advancing the business. This includes having in depth discussions and debates to resolve some of the issues that surfaced during the team’s daily huddles.
Your Meeting Rhythms–four Daily Huddles and one Weekly Meeting–will transform the flow of information, alignment, and performance in your firm. Even better, you’ll effortlessly reinforce your culture, build esprit de corps, and instill consistency and discipline into your operation.
You’re a leader because, one way or another, you’ve earned the right to lead. But beware of overconfidence, blindspots, and cognitive biases, each of which has the potential to subvert your path to success.
To stay on track, create habits around Commander’s Intent, Role Accountability, and Meeting Rhythms and become consistent and vigilant with your practices. Periodically assess:
Further, I suggest you regularly solicit feedback from your team and other trusted sources as to how effectively you’re communicating, using the tools, and creating clarity for your team.
One final thought: Don’t fall into the trap of thinking just because you implement Daily Huddles or create Role Accountability cards that you’ve got everything under control. The Dunning-Kruger effect is real, and there’s a big difference (and tons of blind spots) between implementation, consistent use, and then mastery.
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Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.
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The best strategies and market opportunities in the world mean nothing if you’re not able to execute our plans and get things done. And yet, accountability remains a recurring, frustrating issue for business leaders around the world. Organizations with a culture of accountability execute smoothly and without drama, retain high performers, and have an improved sense of collaboration, accomplishment and fun at work.
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