Two Reasons Communication Is (Almost) Never The Real Issue On Your Team

AdVance Leadership » Two Reasons Communication Is (Almost) Never The Real Issue On Your Team

Welcome to Friday 411, issue #071. In 4 minutes, with 1 insight and 1 action, you will upgrade your communication skills.

1 Insight

Employees often claim that “communication” is their company’s biggest challenge. But communication is rarely the true issue that creates organizational problems.


If you’ve been a subscriber to Friday 411 for more than a few minutes, you know that we talk about the 7 C’s of Unleashed Leadership: Character, Competence, Capacity, Clarity, Community, Culture, and Consistency.

One of the most common questions we get from leaders is: “Why isn’t communication one of the issues that causes 95% of leadership challenges? It even starts with a ‘C’!” We hear this question so often that we’d like to address it today.

The Problem’s Not Always the Issue

A few days after our youngest son was born, he started to look like a ripening peach. The whites of his eyes and skin turned a darker and darker yellow. His pediatrician readmitted him to the hospital with jaundice.

Jaundice is a condition where the skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow due to high levels of bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced from the breakdown of red blood cells. If untreated, bilirubin can cause brain and neurological damage including hearing loss, learning difficulties, and cerebral palsy.

We were fortunate to catch our kid’s jaundice quickly and have it treated. His treatment included chilling under blue lights for a couple days, sporting sunglasses like a miniature Bono.

This picture is not our kid. Ours was MUCH cuter than this!

But imagine a different scenario. What if we had seen our son’s yellowing features and thought he had an eye and skin problem? We would have treated those presenting problems by taking him to an ophthalmologist and dermatologist.

The real issue was his liver, which required different treatment.


Presenting Problems vs. Issues

We see a similar mistake in organizations. People complain that their leaders aren’t good communicators. Or they say “Our company needs better communication.” We hear this so frequently that it’s easy to believe that most leaders are terrible communicators.

But, in reality, most leaders are above-average communicators. They’ve demonstrated consistent abilities throughout their careers, which has led them to frequent promotions.

So, why do people complain so much about communication in organizations? Our belief is that communication, like yellow skin and eyes, is a presenting problem. It’s not the real issue.


Seven Issues that Cause 95% of Leadership Problems

In our research at AdVance Leadership, we discovered that there are seven leadership issues that cause at least 95% of challenges:



As you read through that list, notice that communication– is not one of the issues. There are two reasons that communication is rarely the real issue.


1. Communication is a Complex Competence.

As you can see in the graphic above, one of the issues that causes leadership challenges is Competence. Often, poor communication is a presenting problem that points to the deeper issue of Competence.

Communication is an essential Competency, but it encompasses a variety of Methods, Types, and Relationships that each require their own intentional growth. To further muddle the Competence of communication, Methods, Types, and Relationships fluctuate. As your role and responsibilities in leadership grow, you must develop new skills that help your team accomplish its goals.

To tackle communication as the source of a problem would be like pulling a single hair from your shower drain. Give it a tug, and out pops a tangled mess, always bigger and deeper than you anticipated. Recognize communication for what it is: a signal that there’s something beneath the surface that requires attention.


2. Poor Communication Reveals Deeper Issues

Pat MacMillan said it well: “Communication does not take place until someone receives the message and understands it as the sender intended.”

As leaders, we often assume that good communication has taken place “because I have spoken.” But talking to someone is only one side of the equation. The other side is that the receiver of the message must comprehend what you’ve said as you intended it to be understood.

Failure for the person to receive the message often reveals other issues:

  1. If the leader “beats around the bush” and doesn’t address challenges directly, poor communication stems from a lack of Character.
  2. If the leader is rushed in her communication and doesn’t have enough time to make sure that everyone understands the message as she intended, poor communication stems from a lack of Capacity.
  3. If the leader creates chaos because he keeps changing priorities and plans, poor communication stems from a lack of Clarity or Consistency.
  4. If the leader hasn’t facilitated trust among the team members, communication will be misinterpreted and misunderstood. In this case, poor communication stems from a lack of Community or Culture.


When Communication Isn’t the Issue

Here’s an example: Martin leads a team with six Direct Reports, one of whom is Roger. Martin really likes Roger and wants him to succeed. But he’s frustrated with Roger’s performance. Martin requests that they start meeting together weekly to go over Roger’s priorities and progress.

Unfortunately, Martin doesn’t want to hurt Roger’s feelings by telling him that he’s not doing well. Martin spends most of the time asking about Roger’s family and hobbies. Then Martin takes a few minutes to give vague updates on Roger’s progress.

Roger walks out of each meeting thinking that he’s doing great and wondering if he’s being fast-tracked for more responsibility. Martin leaves each meeting more frustrated.

Let’s break this situation down. We can acknowledge that Martin isn’t communicating well. We know this because Roger has no idea of Martin’s dissatisfaction. But Martin’s communication isn’t the issue. The issue is Martin’s leadership Character. He likes Roger and doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. So, he avoids the difficult conversations. Martin doesn’t need to focus on fixing his communication; he needs to upgrade his leadership character.

1 Action

Review the list of Seven Issues that Cause 95% of Leadership Challenges. Which of these issues cause frequent communication challenges for you?


Want to help your company unleash its leaders?

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