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Leaders, here’s a different way of thinking about your Communication challenge.

Summary: The communication challenge in 1 word, and 3 recommendations for what to do about it

“Communication is a challenge here.”
“We need to get better at communicating around here.”
“Leadership needs to improve communication.”

Communication is the top cited complaint we hear... from South Carolina to California. It's everywhere and in every type of organization.


Organizations are quick to respond with well-intentioned initiatives such as redesigning the newsletter, training everyone on listening skills, starting a communications team, etc.

These initiatives do not provide a solution because they miss the core element of the challenge: o w n e r s h i p.

We tend to think the “communication challenge” lies with other people: our boss, the folks at the main office, the other leaders on the team and even those that report to us.

Here’s the bad news: it’s not about them, it’s about us.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you think you said or communicated. What matters is what your team took away from the communication.

And as a leader, you need to know what they are hearing and how they interpret your messages. Just because you understand your message, doesn’t mean they’ll interpret it the same way.

Now, onto the good news. The solution lies within each of us as leaders:

It’s not uncommon for this concept to generate a reaction like “that’s impossible!” or “how am I supposed to be responsible for what someone else hears?”

Whatever your reaction, we get it. You don’t need to believe it. For now, just consider it. {As an aside, the statement “just consider it” is a powerful way to take ownership for what is being communicated because you are sending the message that you are more interested in keeping the communication going than you are in being right.}

What would it mean if you as a leader were responsible for what others heard? How would that change your communication?

Now what?

Here are our 3 recommendations if you want to address your communication challenge:

  1. Recognize it. Accept that there’s a challenge. Some call it a communication challenge, others may say it’s a listening challenge and still others will call it something else. It doesn’t matter. Step one is to recognize that there is indeed a challenge. Declare it.

  2. Understand it. As a leader, it’s important to uncover what others mean when they say communication. Be responsible for understanding what everyone means. Listen, listen, listen. Ask open-ended questions to unpack what’s at the heart of the challenge with communication.

  3. Own it. Leaders are those who take on responsibility so step up and take ownership of the challenge and the solution. This is the game changer. Declare to everyone that you are going to work on being responsible for what people hear, not just what you’ve said.

These 3 recommendations generate the commitment and the necessary energy to take on any communication challenge.

What’s inevitable?

This is hard work and what’s predictable is that this challenge will keep coming up. There is no overnight solution or silver bullet. The next time ‘communication’ comes up as a challenge or a team member comes to you with a misunderstanding or someone doesn’t complete a task according to what you originally intended, pause and ask yourself:

What do I need to do differently next time?


Core Idea:

The vast majority of organizations complain about communication. Tactics or initiatives won’t solve any communication challenge. Ownership will. 99% of the time the challenge with communication isn’t a lack of talking/meetings/memos/newsletters/blogs/etc. … the challenge results from a lack of truly listening and as a leader taking responsibility for what people take away from a communication.

Key take away:

“When speaking, be responsible for what people hear, not just what you’ve said.”

About the author(s):

Tom Willis is a Co-Founder and Partner with Phoenix Performance Partners. He had the great honor of serving as CEO for Cornerstone; a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers; and an engineer with the Intel Corporation. His life is all about helping others uncover their talents so they can reach their unlimited potential and their organization can thrive.

| Linkedin: Tom

Brad Zimmerman is a Co-Founder and Partner with Phoenix Performance Partners. Zimmerman turned to organizational coaching more than 26 years ago following a successful career in sales and operations. Today, he helps businesses, nonprofits and other organizations develop cultures that transform work environments so people grow and the organizations thrive.

| Linkedin: Brad


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