Best communication styles for effective leaders
Last updated on: July 7, 2022
“Leadership requires two things: a vision of the world that does not yet exist and the ability to communicate it.”— Simon Sinek
A whopping 4.3 million people in the US quit their jobs in August 2021 — The Great Resignation has been hitting hard. People don’t want to go back to work, how surprising is that?
For me, not so much. Over the years, I’ve had my share of toxic workplaces, envious colleagues, and weak leaders. I’m grateful for that because it taught me to differentiate between a poor organization and a great one. It might sound like I’m about to tell you something revolutionary. Yet the point is that it all starts with that one person — the leader, the captain, the overseer.
To be clear, I’m not referring to the CEO, the mystical figure you only hear about in company gossip and never get to see or even talk to. I’m actually referring to the person who’s always somewhere around the company, getting their hands dirty, and making themselves available for the people they are in charge of. You know who I’m talking about, right?
If not, let me give a quick explanation. While many employers have been shocked by the Great Resignation, the truth is that it had to come sooner or later — employees aren’t machines. They are humans and they need to be taken care of — something an effective leader should do. A big part of being an effective leader is the way they communicate with their people, they should by default be outstanding communicators and capable of creating a positive work environment for all.
To help you get more insight into the topic, we’ll devote this piece to exploring how strong leaders communicate. We’ll provide you with a list of the best communication styles for effective leaders and go on to identify some of the best practices for developing your own leadership communication style. Stay tuned.
What is a leadership communication style?
We have to start from the basics and try to define a leadership communication style.
In essence, a leadership communication style includes certain patterns of behavior that most leaders employ when making crucial decisions, interacting with others, and generally using their time. We’ve consulted a few experts on the subject:
🔸 Leadership communication style is action-oriented
According to Paul Gunn Jr, a thought leader, WSJ best-selling author, and a member of the Forbes Business Council, the strength of a great leader lies in their ability “to communicate difficult orders and directives with expectations even in the face of not being liked”.
When asked about leadership communication styles, he put forward the idea that leadership communication style is action-oriented:
“When an employee or team states that they don’t understand something, leadership communication addresses the concern by showing the team members they hear them, and if there are steps to be taken, they move on to get it done. They speak from the heart and consider others on the teams.”
🔸 Leadership communication style is based on three pillars
Here’s another perspective from Harvard Business School Professors Anthony Mayo and Joshua Margolis.
In their course on leadership, they examine leadership styles through three distinct frameworks:
- Imprint: The way a leader is experienced by those they collaborate with and lead
- Functions: The practices a leader employs to mobilize their colleagues and get things done
- Motivations: The desire, incentive, or stimulus, that makes a leader do things in a certain way
Mayo and Margolis believe that, by abiding by these frameworks, most leaders can hone their leadership style and become more effective at their leadership jobs.
🔸 Leadership communication style is a preferred way of communicating
According to Diane DiResta, a workplace communications coach and author, using various communication styles to interact with employees, partners, and customers is what effective leaders should focus on.
She highlights some of the most prominent communication styles:
- Directive and to the point: Let’s Do It!
- Expressive, warm, and personal: Let’s be friendly, chatty…
- Methodical, step by step: Let’s build consensus; What does the team think?
- Analytical: Carefully weighing pros and cons
- Asking questions: Cautious before moving ahead, valuing data
The way leaders communicate can’t be uniform and always the same — it’s always good to look at things from different perspectives. A great leader will be focused on constant improvement and growth — yet who are great leaders and what do they do?
Let’s find out.
How to recognize an effective leader?
According to DiResta, an effective leader is characterized by a unique set of traits. She argues:
“Effective leaders build trust, develop people, respect differences and demonstrate good listening skills. They inspire and lead by example. The best leaders have emotional intelligence, self-awareness, curiosity, and continually innovate.”
In line with DiResta’s perspective, Cynthia Moore, a leadership coach, mentor, and speaker gives her view of what makes an effective leader:
“Effective leaders display characteristics such as high emotional intelligence, including awareness (of self and others, situation, organizational, strategic, socially), self-regulation, motivation, empathy, adaptability, and result-orientedness. From this flows a strong ability to manage oneself, particularly in challenging situations, which in turn enables leaders to stay present and focused on the situation and people involved as well as the desired outcome.”
With these standpoints in mind, it will be easier to examine the most common leadership communication styles and realize why communication style is a relevant factor for effective leadership communication.
Why is communication style important for leaders?
Before we go on to define each leadership communication style, Moore says it’s important to make a difference between leadership styles and leadership communication styles:
“Leadership styles, e.g. authoritative, collaborative, etc, are closely linked to leaders’ communication styles, however, the style used doesn’t determine the leader’s communication style definitively.”
According to a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, poor workplace communication can damage the success of any workplace.
This is true today more than ever.
With the times of traditional workplaces almost behind us, remote, hybrid, and distributed workplace arrangements are exposing serious organizational and structural issues — making leaders reconsider their communication styles and pushing them to create more positive work settings.
Some have already realized that their internal communication strategy hasn’t exactly been working — so they are actively looking for ways to fix that.
And to those who still aren’t on the right track, DiResta gives a ray of hope:
“Self-knowledge and continual training enhance the way a leader communicates. Asking for feedback from followers, peers, and superiors will elevate a leader’s communication skills. This requires suspending the ego.”
Seven types of leadership communication styles
To hone the way you communicate as a leader, you should know what your leadership style is first, right?
It’s not always easy to define a leadership communication style and make a clear cut between one or the other.
Yet, Moore argues that communication styles that leaders adopt can vary, even within a single conversation.
Moreover, Ashira Prossak, an internationally recognized communication coach, trainer, and speaker, supports this view as well. She believes that leaders should focus on adapting their communication style based on the situation they are currently in. She recognizes six leadership communication styles:
Some identify the delegating leadership communication style as the seventh effective way for leaders to communicate and I will examine it thoroughly here too — yet, remember to use it cautiously. In fact, Moore warns that it can be a “disastrous approach for newly-formed and inexperienced teams.”
An important part of effective leadership communication is the ability to communicate assertively and act according to the needs of every situation and employee.
Let us now explore the seven leadership communication styles:
1. Listening communication style 👂
Listening has proved essential to effective leadership — and, according to Moore, it’s one of the pillars of communication in general. Leaders who devote themselves to actively listening to their employees are usually very good at solving issues quickly and efficiently.
For listeners, employee expression will be the most important aspect of communication. They are able to read between the lines, interpreting what they aren’t saying or what they might be reluctant to share.
📌 How to recognize if you are a listener?
It’s not hard to recognize a listener — they are genuinely interested in learning what goes on in their organization. They are actively seeking employee feedback, ideas, and thoughts because they know it will help them do better. What’s more, those with a knack for listening will also have the following traits:
- They are always fully present in every conversation
- They don’t listen only to give a random response
- They don’t have a hidden motive for listening to what you have to say
- They never interrupt
- They usually listen more than they speak
- They always have follow-up questions
- They are patient and let you take your time
- They are focused on learning while listening
- They share their interlocutor’s interests
- They are great at summarizing what they’ve heard
⏳ When to use the listening communication style?
While being an extraordinary listener can help you evaluate various situations, you should always have in mind that employees will be turning to you for words of wisdom and expecting you to help them take proper steps for resolving their issues — i.e. not just listen to what they have to say.
Use listening communication style when:
- Employees are trying to explain a problem
- You are trying to resolve a workplace conflict
- Conducting one-on-one meetings
- An employee is giving you feedback
- Performing employee evaluation
🔖 Useful phrases to support listening communication style
To show your employees you’re actively listening, make use of some of the following words and phrases:
- Please, tell me more…
- I’m listening…
- Go on….
- Please give me more details….
- Let me see if I understood you correctly…
- Could you clarify this?
- I’m pretty sure I’ve heard about that issue, could you explain a bit more?
- Please continue, I’m following what you’re saying.
- I’m all ears…
- So what I’m getting from you is…
2. Coaching communication style 💪
According to Prossak, coaching can help employees build and develop a wide range of skills but only in low-pressure situations. While coaching is tightly connected to teaching and advising, it’s a style that requires leaders to provide their workers with a framework — but allow them to reach their goals by choosing their own path.
📌 How to recognize if you are a coach?
An outstanding coach can be recognized by:
- Their ability to teach and train more leaders
- Their capacity to be an inspiring role model
- Their curiosity and desire to genuinely get to know their team
- Their knack for making employees feel emotionally safe
- Their talent to ask questions that ensure employee autonomy and ownership
- Their desire to guide and empower those under their leadership
- Their craving for constant improvement
- Their support for effective communication
⏳ When to use the coaching communication style?
When deciding whether to employ a coaching communication style, most leaders will have to take time into account. Coaching will be the most effective in situations that don’t require immediate decision-making because it takes time for this communication style to develop. Make use of coaching when:
- There’s enough time to achieve the goal
- You see that your employees are struggling with getting started with a project
- You are certain that an employee only needs a little support to get things going
- Employees need your advice to make progress with a task or project
- You estimate that it’s the best way to handle a certain situation
🔖 Useful phrases to support coaching communication style
When employing coaching communication style, try the following:
- What can you do to make this work?
- Who can you consult?
- Let’s start over.
- What isn’t working?
- I want to help you overcome this obstacle….
- I see your point but let’s view this from another angle…
- What are we dealing with?
- What would you do in this situation?
- Have you learned something from this?
3. Teaching communication style 🧑🏫
Fundamentally, strong leaders are also amazing teachers. Although this leadership communication style won’t be active at all times, it will be essential for helping employees master new skills and improve their performance.
You should remember that there are three key points for this style of leadership communication:
- Laying out a foundation for employees to follow
- Outlining the steps to take
- Explaining the benefits of learning a new skill
To avoid confusion, you should focus on explaining the WHY behind everything, especially if you want to teach your employees a new skill. This communication style is closely connected to coaching and advising, and it’s probably most effective when used in combination with others as well.
📌 How to recognize if you are a teacher?
What also makes a good teacher is their ability to share the best practices, adapt to every situation easily, and keep their students engaged. Essentially, the best teachers remain lifelong learners.
By default, outstanding teachers are characterized by the following:
- They are great listeners
- They are able to adapt to any situation
- They always focus on collaboration
- They are engaging and motivating
- They display empathy and kindness
- They are patient and practical
- They are always willing to share their knowledge
⏳ When to use the teaching communication style?
The teaching communication style should be reserved for situations where employees are struggling with mastering certain skills or completing tasks. While this communication style can help you share your wisdom, try to focus on your employee’s growth and progress — you should be providing them with the skills necessary to excel at their jobs.
🔖 Useful phrases to support teaching communication style
When using the teaching communication style with your employees, consider some of the following phrases:
- Let’s start with….
- Now that you have all the facts…. you can get to work.
- I see you’re struggling, let me…
- Why don’t you go back to the start?
- Have you read the instructions/policy/strategy…?
- What can we learn from this?
- I’m always available for…
4. Directing communication style 🎬
With this leadership communication style, a leader can specify the steps employees should take to make progress on a project. This leadership communication style will be particularly helpful when employees are struggling with finishing a project or are stuck at doing a certain task.
What can be problematic here is the tendency to confuse directing with dictating — the key difference is in the way you deliver. You want to provide instructions, rather than orders.
📌 How to recognize if you are a director?
Thanks to mindful directing, most leaders will be able to help their employees finish tasks and projects successfully and produce desired outcomes. A strong director would be able:
- To value and respect diverse perspectives and viewpoints
- To provide clear instructions and guidelines
- To not get upset about small issues
- To see the “bigger picture” behind every project
- To successfully deal with stressful situations
👥 When to use the directing communication style?
The directing communication style is mostly task-oriented. Consider using it in the following situations:
- To support new employees with their daily tasks
- To ensure the completion of less creative and even mundane tasks
- When employees aren’t expected to come up with creative solutions
🔖 Useful phrases to support directing communication style
With directing communication style, focus on the following catchphrase:
- Let’s go over….
- You should try to do this….
- Could you do ….by tomorrow?
- Why don’t you consider the…..approach?
- Let’s all take a break and return to this later.
- Let’s go with….
- Who can take over…?
5. Advising communication style ✍️
Most leaders will spend a lot of their time advising the people in their surroundings, including their employees and even other business partners. As experts in their field, the majority of leaders will be able to provide proper advice and communicate in a transparent way when employees need to resolve a certain situation or a misunderstanding.
📌 How to recognize if you are an adviser?
To establish themselves as good advisers, leaders should:
- Be extremely skilled on important topics in their field of expertise
- Make a positive role model
- Have a genuine interest in providing constructive advice to others
- Create a collaborative environment
- Remain passionate about tackling new challenges
- Take into account everyone’s opinion
- Help achieve result-driven objectives
The role of advisors in business is to help employees work through any issues that could be affecting their work and push them forward.
⏳ When to use the advising communication style?
Be careful with this communication style — try not to fall into the trap of complacency. The advising communication style should be used carefully, precisely to avoid employees getting used to their leaders always being there when times get rough. Minimize turning to advisory mode to the following:
- Clarifying a specific situation
- Resolving a misunderstanding or a conflict between employees
- Answering employees’ questions
- Helping a ream go through a roadblock
- Providing an alternative perspective
🔖 Useful phrases to support advising communication style
When in advisory mode, remember to use these:
- Can I give you advice on this?
- I would advise…
- Perhaps …. Is worth a try.
- Perhaps …. Is worth a try.
- I can recommend….
- Have you thought about….?
- When I had this problem, …..worked for me.
- In my experience, ….
- Maybe it’s a good idea to…
- It might be wise to….
- Would you like to hear what I think?
6. Motivating communication style 🌟
Motivating your team is an integral part of any leader’s job description. From time to time, most teams will need a good old pat on the back or a casual encouragement to make sure they’re doing their job right.
What’s paramount here is to actually know your people and be aware of what motivation methods they’ll respond to positively. Some will respond well to being hyped, perhaps with some famous motivational quotes. Others will thrive on positive reinforcement such as showing genuine appreciation for their skills, insight, and perspective. It’s your job as a leader to know which method to employ.
📌 How to recognize if you are a motivator?
Thanks to a strong call-to-action approach, good motivators are able to keep moving people forward and inspiring them to do their best work. You can identify them by the following:
- They have a clear vision and goals
- They support teamwork
- They are optimistic and positive
- They inspire employees to do their best
- They praise and reward
- They realize the importance of effective communication
⏳ When to use the motivating communication style?
Leaders should retain an optimal level of optimism and positivity, just enough to empower them to push through hard times and have employees working towards the same goal. Motivating would work best when:
- A team needs that final encouragement to complete a task or project
- An employee is struggling in their new/old position
- There’s a complex task or project to get a hold of
- You need to boost morale
- When communicating changes in the company
🔖 Useful phrases to support motivating communication style
Here are some useful phrases to help you inspire and motivate your team:
- Great to have you on the team!
- I’m sure we can … together
- I believe you can do this.
- Wow, that was a great idea!
- How insightful/inspiring/exciting!
- I’m amazed by your…
- You’ve demonstrated great….
- I appreciate your contribution!
- We couldn’t have done this without you!
- You’re on the right track. Tell me more!
7. Delegating communication style 📚
The delegating communication style assumes the transfer of responsibility to the employees — especially when there’s a clear goal to strive for, a specific task or project to complete. It’s a great way to approach self-driven employees and offer them more autonomy and a chance to learn valuable leadership skills.
While the most hands-off of all communication styles, employees still need some guidance and support. Leaders who opt for this way of communication have to be aware of the pitfalls of its ineffective use and make sure to consider which situation and what teams would benefit from employing a delegating communication style.
📌 How to recognize if you are a delegator?
Great delegators can be recognized by the following:
- They know what to delegate and when
- They know each employee’s strengths and weaknesses
- They encourage better communication among team members
- They are capable of defining the desired outcome
- They always provide the necessary information, resources, and tools
⏳ When to use the delegating communication style?
As an experienced leadership coach, Moore argues that leaders should be careful when choosing to use delegating communication style:
“Delegating communication style could work very well on mature, self-sustaining teams but it has to be combined with the right level of direction depending on ability and experience within the team.”
In a way, delegating communication style can be seen as an upgraded version of the directing communication style — one that would work best for well-coordinated teams.
🔖 Useful phrases to support delegating communication style
If you’re about to delegate responsibility, have these phrases in mind:
- Let’s break it into smaller tasks…
- How can we break this up…?
- Could you manage…?
- Who would like to….?
- Could you be in charge of…?
- You’re responsible for….
- I would appreciate your initiative…
- Would you consider steering the wheel on this one?
On most occasions, the leadership communication style you choose to employ will depend on the situation you’re in. Some will require you to teach and coach, others will have you directing or motivating people, but ultimately, the great leader in you will be able to recognize the contextual cues and adapt the style to each situation and each person.
💡 While working with different types of people, you’ll likely engage in various types of communication situations. To learn more about them, check out our guide: The types of communication at work: everything you need to know
Best practices for developing your leadership communication style
As DiResta notices, adaptability is key for honing the way you communicate with employees and third parties. She believes that one style won’t work with every employee or every situation — a standpoint Prossak and Moore also promote. DiResta goes on to explain that leaders can develop a leadership communication style by:
1. Clearly understanding the different styles
2. Understanding how they naturally communicate and leveraging that style
3. Practice flexing their styles so that they can adapt to any situation
In essence, there’s no one best leadership communication style — you will have to learn which one to use and when to become an effective communicator and overcome common communication challenges.
Let’s explore in-depth the options for developing your leadership communication style. 👇
#1 Drop the ego
When I reached out to Moore to discuss leadership communication styles, she put forward the idea that ego (or lack of one) proves essential for it. She says that most leaders tend to be “focused on themselves as a leader (‘ego-driven, designed for personal safety). Yet, there’s another perspective — a more emphatic one that focuses on what is important for the people the leader leads,” Moore adds.
Moreover, this seems like a key point for improving the way you communicate, because it allows you to develop your communication style in a more assertive way. When leaders put their ego aside and approach situations and people from another perspective, Moore argues they become “less driven by fears of how they are perceived, more driven by identifying what serves the team/department/organization’s goals and its members.”
Finally, by choosing to put the psychological safety of your people above everything else, you’ll get out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to negative perceptions. For Moore, this represents a possibility to escape “the paradox of potentially creating a situation where people don’t feel ‘heard’ and thereby potentially leading to negative perception”.
#2 Adapt and flex your communication style to the situation and the people
Adaptability and flexibility will be your best friends when you decide it’s time to work on your communication style. Keeping an open mind at all times is essential for successful communication, particularly if you work in a cross-generational, hybrid, or distributed work environment.
Considering that Prossak, DiResta, and Moore all emphasize the ability to adapt to every situation and each employee as essential for enhancing leadership communication styles, there’s no reason to fear or resist this step. Of course, change isn’t always easy but many times proves crucial for making progress — particularly successful upward and downward communication.
#3 Don’t forget to communicate
In any workplace scenario, communication is the key solution to all problems.
You want to establish yourself as a collaborative leader, so you need to practice your communication style — and practice it a lot.
Well, the more you communicate with your team, the more you’ll be able to pick up on situational cues — “it also means noticing more about the person, such as body language, the context, and noticing gaps in what is not being said,” Moore adds.
You can do this by taking modern communication technology such as Pumble to your advantage. As a popular business messaging app, Pumble’s main purpose is to support real-time communication and ensure a quick exchange of important information.
#4 Focus on your priorities as a leader
Knowing what your priorities are in communication with others is what will help you improve your communication style:
- As Moore wisely notices, “enhancing a leader’s communication often starts with strengthening the listening skill”. She believes that listening without judgment is vital to gaining a good understanding of the situation.
- Being self-confident and quick-witted is essential for making progress in communication — Moore emphasizes the importance of being able to think of quality responses while still listening and not missing vital information on the way.
- Having a role model to look up to can greatly contribute to the way you communicate as a leader, too. It can give an idea of what to aspire to, what to improve, and what traits they want to start practicing themselves.
Don’t miss out on the benefits of communicating
#5 Always question your communication style
When I asked her what advice she would give to leaders trying to improve their communication style, Moore said:
“Leaders (new or not so new) can at times question how they come across, how they are perceived. This type of insecurity can lead to the internal creation of the type of leader they want to be; high-standards but fair, somewhat feared, etc. These are genuine descriptors budding leaders have used verbatim.”
It seems that being curious about the way you appear in front of others can go a long way in making you always be one step ahead of yourself.
Final thoughts: There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ leadership communication style
Overall, having a unique leadership communication style isn’t exactly an option. You can’t pick one communication style and stick to it because it won’t be effective in every situation.
While most leaders spend their days teaching, advising, and motivating their staff, special emphasis should be put on listening as the underpinning of a healthy and proactive work environment. Moreover, listening between the lines proves even more significant for leaders who are focused on being the best version of themselves and inspiring their employees to do the same.
Only through constant self-improvement and introspection will you be able to communicate your mission and vision better to the people you’ve decided to lead and inspire them to follow you on that road. Choose your words wisely, practice active listening, and be as flexible as the situation requires you to be.