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How can leaders meet the greatest leadership challenge this century?

Managers are facing the most significant test of their leadership this century, as COVID-19 accelerates changes already in train. Before the pandemic, an estimated 50-85% of Australian and New Zealand employees felt disengaged at work. They were looking for leaders who provided them with a sense of purpose, consulted them and gave them control over how they worked.

These expectations have become the new baseline. The pandemic brought two-way communication to the fore as managers stayed connected with their people. Businesses’ rapid acceptance of working from home showed us it was possible to work flexibly. As we begin to see a life beyond lockdowns, employees will hang on to these arrangements.

The “Great Resignation” on the horizon

As expectations have risen, many remote workers have realised their only connection to their organisation is a physical location. Removed from this location—the office—they feel no sense of belonging and plan to change employers. In its 2021-22 ANZ Salary Guide, recruiting expert Hays found that 38% of skilled professionals are looking for a new job in the next 12 months. IML ANZ’s own National Salary Survey has found the average staff turnover rate in organisations from 2020 to 2021 has risen from 14.2% to 14.8%.

There is a real risk that as we move into 2022, people will leave leaders and organisations who don’t meet their expectations. So, what can leaders do? Connection and communication brought us through the pandemic. They will be the keys to success in the future. Here are three ways to step up your communication and engage your team.

Provide a purpose

Ground your communication in purpose. Make your employees feel they belong and are in the right place by giving their work meaning. Be clear on why your organisation exists and who it serves. Remind your team frequently of these reasons for being. Link your directions, requests and suggestions to this purpose.

Focus on outcomes in your communication, making it clear why you are doing something and who will benefit. Doing so avoids micromanagement and reinforces the autonomy of your people. Tell your team what it is working towards and empower them to decide how.

A coaching style supports this focus on purpose. When we coach, we ask questions to unlock the potential in others. We encourage them to find their own ways to complete a task. Use a directive style—where you state the when, where and how, as well as the what—sparingly. This way, you’ll help your people find meaning in their work and a reason to be on your team.

Stay in conversation

As we emerge from lockdowns, the managers who succeed will be those who dedicate time to conversations. Communication cannot be made efficient. You may have fallen into the trap of hurriedly trying to get your message across—usually by shooting off that quick email—only to spend hours later fixing a misunderstanding. This urge to communicate one-way is even more dangerous now, as it fails to meet employees’ expectations of consultation.

Effective communication, whether in-person or virtual, is two-way. Provide opportunities for your people to give feedback. Allow for reactions, questions and discussion. Listen for responses in tone, body language and actions. Let your team know you’ve heard them and act on what you hear.

Communicating this way relies on leaders being accessible. Make sure you are available for feedback, whether that is in the office or virtually. Check-in with each of your team members, individually, at least once a week. Make sure there is time for what they want to talk about. Preferably, have them speak first.

Adapt your communication style

It has been a long time since leaders could comfortably sit at the top of a pyramid and send directives down the chain. The last 18 months have moved us even further away from this approach. Employees expect leaders to connect with them and inspire them towards a common goal.

Meeting your people where they are is key to this approach. It aligns with the concept of servant leadership and meets growing expectations of flexibility, autonomy and empowerment.

Consider the people in your team and how they prefer to communicate. How can you convey your message in a way they are more likely to hear, understand and act on? Rather than forcing everyone to accept your style, adapt it to meet theirs.

In our evolving world of hybrid teams, our messages need to be repeated and multi-channel. Repetition helps break through distraction and reinforces the message. Sending your message through multiple channels—video, phone, email, message—makes it more likely to match your audience’s communication style.

It’s all about developing your people

Ultimately, your people need to know you are listening to them, considering their input and giving them flexibility in how they work. The pandemic has cemented the change seen over past decades. It is no longer enough to have managers who direct. People need leaders who develop. These successful leaders will meet the expectations of their team while giving them a sense of belonging. They will be leaders who hang on to their people and succeed in 2022 and beyond.


Chris Huet works with organisations and leaders to improve performance through better communication.

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