Leadership Communication: Navigation & Meaning

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Our immediate attitudes and opinions contain enormous amounts of implicit meaning, most of which we do not examine in everyday work life. Imperatives action can make it difficult to take time for such reflection. The priority of doing – deciding direction, completing a task, finalizing a sale, and solving a problem – dominates. There’s little opportunity for mining the meaning of attitudes and opinions.

Navigation is about getting there...meaning is about having reason for the journey.

But as I proposed in a recent article on the leader’s role in attitude issues, at times we must suspend this norm. When attitudes become problematic and affect performance (i.e., attitude as “a negative or hostile state of mind; cool, cocky, defiant” – Merriam-Webster), it’s time for us to pause and unpack the intuitive thoughts, feelings, and impressions underlying our attitudes, on both sides of the issue.

Leader communications must shift from the singular aim of navigating collective action toward a goal (strategic action) to communication for understanding. We need to close the gaps revealed by attitude. Easier said than done, as one of my readers observed: “To become a great leader, you must understand what makes people tick. Dealing with ‘attitude’ issues can be hard. How do we get to a place of mutual understanding?”

My first reaction was, “You’re right, leaders need to understand people, attitude issues can be hard, and how-to question concerning mutual understanding are critical.” Her attitude and appraisal represented a different kind of gap. It was not defiant; it was helpful. It “problematized” the issue, setting it before us as something that requires clarification. I decided to take this as constructive challenge.

Reframing and Unpacking Attitudes

I recognized two thesis points in her reaction, and I further considered them to tease out implications for the how-to question of reaching mutual understanding.

Thesis One: Yes, we’re better able to lead when we understand others – their motivations, personality and dispositional tendencies in thought, feeling, and behavior. It also helps if we’re familiar with their situation, the prevailing norms of their operating environment, their role, and the challenges they face. Understanding others is not simple. It can help to use general knowledge applicable to many, but it’s the specific meaning of the situation for the individual person that matters most. Generalizing based on experience can be helpful, but it can also obscure critical specificity in meaning.

Thesis Two: Yes, attitude issues can be hard to work through, but not always. It depends on how deeply rooted these “settled ways of thinking and feeling” are, how “sacred” they seem to us. We all approach situations in daily life from a “natural attitude” that consists of assumptions, rule-of-thumb theories, specific normative expectations, and what Jose Ortega y Gassett[1] called “operative beliefs.” These givens may be open to question, but some may feel inviolable. It is softening our grasp on the latter that we most have in mind when we say that “attitude issues can be hard.”

Radically Individual Intervention

The Practical Matter: Based on this brief consideration of the two theses, we can find guidance on how to find a path forward in realizing mutual understanding. It involves softening the harder attitudinal stances that we begin with – letting go. It concerns normalizing that we all may find ourselves grasping, holding onto, and attributing absolute truth, value, and normativity to beliefs and attitudes. It involves declaring a “truce” and adopting an explicit purpose of seeking to understand, suspending decision-making and judgment – those choices and appraisals can be reconsidered later.

What does it look like? Here’s how the dialogue might start:   

“I think we can both recognize that there’s a gap between your feelings and opinion and mine on the policies of management regarding your readiness for promotion to director.”

“Our thoughts, feelings, and expectations may vary in ways that we do and don’t understand, and I’d like to suggest that we take some time to understand these differences.”

“Let’s agree that we’ll set aside our positions for the moment, and just talk about what we are thinking and feeling, and how we are looking at this situation, what it means to us.”

This opening is intended to be honest, respectful, and direct – “Here’s what I am seeing, and this is what I’d like to do about it.” When the leader initiates this she should be mindful of her tone, pace, and her verbal and nonverbal messages. If the leader is a bit anxious or worried about doing it well, he should take time to calm and focus himself beforehand. Remember, this is not about selling or persuading. The goal is to connect as two human beings who both have reason to care about one another and the situation.

The conversation may playout quite differently case by case: 1) “We’ve got huge school loans and need to pay them down.” 2) “Jane got promoted, and I think I’ve done more than her to merit a promotion.” 3) “I’m not sure where I stand, what to expect.” Circumstances, personalities, organizational culture, and a myriad of other factors may come into play. Your present task is to understand them, not act on them.

What’s important is: 1) getting to know one another’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations in order to create trust; 2) conveying respect for how one another’s roles and the company policies that function as constraints on your actions; and, 3) with your mutual interests and constraints in mind, agree upon what is reasonable to expect, strive for, and encourage. It may require ongoing, iterative dialogue, mutuality usually does.

[1] Ortega y Gassett was an important 20th century Spanish philosopher who helped us appreciate the fact that we are born into a world and culture that always already provides beliefs and norms for how things work, and what we should reasonably expect. In a diverse, global economy these beliefs can vary widely, thus the importance of dialogue and communication for understanding. It’s a skilled practice that all 21st century leaders should master.