What Can Make or Break a Leader? Communication Skills

“What we’ve got here….is a failure to communicate.”

This famous line from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke sums up why even the most talented and most liked leader will still fail if they have not mastered the skill of Communication.

We talk about the distinction between a “manager” and a “leader” but when it comes to the basics of communicating with employees, they are the same and need to approach communication the same way. Both have to work with others that they have to motivate to complete a task and give clear and concise direction. While the approach each uses is different, communication is a key factor in the success or failure of a goal or project.

  • You can’t “give orders” unless you communicate your want or need.
  • You can’t “rally the troops” if you don’t communicate the situation and how they can help.
  • And you can’t just tell people what to do and then…walk away.

Don’t forget that communication needs be a two-way street! Don’t fall into that trap of thinking all you have to do is “tell people what to do” and they will take it from there.

  • How do you know your directions were understood?
  • How will you know when a project may encounter problems or is starting to fall off track?
  • How do you know who is really working on the project and who isn’t…and why?
  • How will you know if your employees need more direction or motivation?

Think about all those “Death by PowerPoint” classes you have taken…did you really learn much from them? Or did they leave you frustrated and with unanswered questions? Bet you walked out thinking “that was a waste.” This is why so many speakers try to engage the audience during these classes…and why you should do the same when talking or teaching your employees.


Most of all, realize that Communication is a skill that you use to build a relationship with your employees of respect and trust. The “loyalty” factor that used to exist 30-40yrs ago is long gone. Employees don’t stay with companies for their entire career. They are looking for more personal satisfaction these days than just job security and aren’t afraid to leave an employer if they feel they are not appreciated or treated well. Money isn’t as much a factor as it used to be as well. Employees are happier leaving a high paying job for a lower paying one that will make them feel welcome and truly part of the company instead of just a paycheck.


When you communicate with employees, you want to make yourself approachable – which for some will mean getting off their high horse of “I’m the one in charge.” You can’t tell employees to be a “team player” if you haven’t established that there really is a “team” for them to be a part of. This is why two-way communication is essential in today’s workplace. While you are communicating what needs to get done, you also have to be open to input. Does that mean you become their “friend?” No, you still need to keep the lines clear that you are the decision-maker and the one responsible for the outcome. But, “talking to them” instead of “talking down to them” is how to foster this open door culture in your department or workplace.

One of the biggest complaints from employees is that upper management puts changes into place without knowing how its going to affect those that need to carry it out…and its true. But, if you open a dialogue with your employees and allow for feedback from them, not only will you arrive at a much better decision but you will have gained the respect of your employees…and that leads to buy-in of the new plan and loyalty to carry it out.

This applies to your Co-Managers or Co-Leaders in other departments as well! Don’t forget communicating with each other, especially on projects that will overlap, will ensure the job is carried out without error and on time. Delays occur when there hasn’t been prior communication or when communication breaks down on one side or the other.

And last thing: Learn what is the best method to use when communicating with your employees that achieves the results you want…not just which way is most comfortable for you to use. We have so many tools to use for communicating these days: phone, email, text message, etc. We have become a society almost dependent on these alternative methods of communicating that we have forgotten the art of a good ole “sit down conversation.” There are times and places to use these alternative methods, but we cautious when you do depending on the message and time sensitivity. A face-to-face conversation with someone will achieve so much more than just relaying information – it will provide you will instant feedback and building that relationship with you employees that will go a long way to helping you become a better and more successful leader.

About the Author

Barb is an HR consultant with Timeless HR Solutions based in Chicago, IL, which offers training and advisory services to start-ups and small/medium-sized businesses on various HR-related skills and challenges.

Barb Buckner
HR Consultant, Timeless HR Solutions
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Author: Barb Buckner

Over 15 years of experience as a strategic Human Resource Professional with a proven history of implementing HR strategies and managing employee relations, process improvement and compliance. A reputation for leveraging business relationships, engaging the workforce and creating a positive return on investment into HR initiatives.

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