Employees pay an extraordinary amount of attention to what we do in the moment. What we communicate when we aren’t formally thinking about communication is what employees actually hear.
As leaders, we spend an enormous amount of time crafting our proactive messages to employees, teams, and customers. We deliver passionate speeches, write thoughtful emails, and frame strategic conversations. We invest our energy and time in those planned communications with the hope and intent that our teams will hear the messages and act on them.
However, what we know, intuitively, is that what employees really pay attention to is the “in the moment” communication. The messages that we communicate in the questions we ask, in the snippets of conversations in off-hand moments, in the discussions over a meal, while walking in between meetings, or more recently in virtual happy hours and Zoom check-ins. These real-life, real-time moments are when leaders reinforce messages for the business (or not!).
And to raise the stakes even higher, in those human moments, we’re communicating not just through what we say, but in how we behave, who we pay attention to and the non-verbal clues we send off.
Leaders could read this and be discouraged. Do we have to be “always on” message? Have “always on” body language? Maybe, but that’s not the point. The opportunity is simply to pay attention and increase the impact of our “in the moment” interactions. Effective leaders leverage quick conversations and visible body language as an advantage rather than just let them slip by; they are conscious of off-hand words, expressions, and engagement. They ask their teams and others for feedback; they check that the messages they are communicating reactively are consistent with the messages they take so much time to craft proactively.
As leaders, we have great communication opportunities we often miss in the moment. It takes only a few seconds more to explain the strategic rationale for a decision, to explain why you are asking a question, to offer a reminder of why something is a priority. Leaders who actively use the day-to-day opportunities, either virtually or in-person, to communicate will increase what their teams hear and internalize. Because, as we know, everyone’s watching.
Amanda Young Hickman is co-founder of Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.