Leaders Struggle to Communicate Authentically in Remote Environments

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Jul 23, 2020
This article is part of a series called Remote Work.

When the coronavirus pandemic reached its critical flashpoint in March 2020, it triggered an immensely damaging blow to business. Offices and conference rooms were deserted; teams began working separately from one another; meetings that used to happen face-to-face were quickly shifted online; travel plans were canceled, leading to almost zero demand for hotels and flights; industry events were abandoned across the board and across the world

Indeed, COVID-19 has caused us to swiftly rethink virtually every business process we’ve ever known. That includes how leaders communicate. Leaders and managers responsible for the future health and viability of your organization must be able to communicate effectively to achieve business results. The question is: How can your leaders communicate effectively in a virtual environment?

The Communication Gap

The existence of a gap in authentic communication is as old as business itself; COVID-19 has simply magnified the gap because virtual communication is more difficult, and it makes those gaps obvious.

Engaging an audience in the best of times, be it in a social setting or in a business meeting, is a skill that requires a competency level with which few are born. When the setting takes the form of talking to a computer screen from a remote location, it’s close to impossible to get a read on the room and it’s marred by a lack of meaningful engagement. Achieving the intended outcome becomes a much taller order than ever before.

Executives today are left trying to lead, inspire, and engage their teams, while business development teams are working overtime to retain existing business and acquire new clients virtually. The best solution we’ve adopted to date in the midst of COVID-19 is videoconferencing, which does its best to help us mimic some semblance of togetherness but has inherent limitations when it comes to engaging those on the other end of the computer.

The Value of Authenticity 

One critical issue that most leaders and managers don’t recognize is the importance of communicating authentically. With increased financial pressures to deliver results, most companies are not aware of the impact that authentic communication has on their performance and are not making it a priority with respect to execution. 

Oftentimes, leaders get so caught up in what they are saying as they lead staff meetings and sales calls that they overlook how they are saying it. Authenticity helps create meaning in communication. And virtual modes of communication these days require more meaningful connections in the absence of face-to-face interaction.

The challenge, according to John Medina, University of Washington biologist and the New York Times bestselling author of Brain Rules, is that virtual audiences have more limited attention spans. Thus, virtual content and messaging must not only be delivered concisely and effectively; presenters must also completely rethink content, voice, energy, and pace. Most importantly, they must focus more on authenticity to drive real engagement. Simply winging it will most assuredly lead to lost opportunities, lost revenues, and a variety of other undesirable outcomes.

No Quick Fixes

When it comes to training leaders to be better communicators, it’s worth keeping in mind that while success via a virtual medium comes with numerous nuances, the ability to be a great communicator in any medium lies within each individual and must be developed in a personalized manner. 

The first priority in choosing an effective training program is to strip away the notion of a “quick fix” that a one-size-fits-all program hopes to achieve. While the responsibilities of your team members may be the same, each person brings his or her own personal experience to bear. It is therefore essential to concentrate training investments on programs that truly identify each individual’s starting point and long-term goals, as well as emphasize continual refinement. Tips and tricks just aren’t useful for meaningful change and sustainable success.

Ultimately, individuals participating in any developmental experience will only get out of it what they put into it. The most effective approach relies heavily on self-awareness and empowering individuals to address their own gaps to achieve their objectives. It’s fundamentally important that people be able to explore themselves in a safe environment. Otherwise, participants will be less willing to fully commit to making real change. No amount of telling someone how to “be better” will work.

Generally, leaders struggle with these aspects of authentic communication because they lack self-awareness. Often, leaders are surrounded by numerous individuals who offer continual acknowledgement and praise, but never constructive criticism. This breeds a lack of authenticity, humility, and empathy that hinders the ability to connect. Such behaviors are deeply ingrained, hardened through the years. 

At the same time, there is an inverse correlation between a leader’s ascent through the organization and the amount of direct feedback they get regarding their communication ability. It’s exceedingly rare for leaders to truly understand the way they are perceived. The most glaring byproduct of these challenges is an inability to establish real trust, purely as a result of their communication.

It’s therefore incumbent upon every organization’s leaders, training directors, and benefits staff to ensure that leaders receive proper training to help them communicate more authentically (translation: more effectively). The results can be dramatic. Equipping people with the skills and self-awareness to succeed in the current environment, which is undoubtedly hostile toward business success, will position companies to thrive.

This article is part of a series called Remote Work.
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