Leadership

When It Comes to Communication from the Top, Less Isn’t More

Many managers don’t convey the right amount of information, but those who undercommunicate pay a steeper price.

September 12, 2022

| by Claire Zulkey
Illustration of two people separated on two different colored backgrounds. One person is talking, and the other person is thinking. iStock/Denis Novikov

TMI can be better than leaving employees guessing. | iStock/Denis Novikov

A boss who overloads you with information may be frustrating, but one who leaves you in the dark may come off as uncaring.

That’s the key finding from a new study that examines how employees perceive managers who assume that less is more when it comes to communicating at work.

After reviewing thousands of 360-degree leadership assessments in MBA and executive education classes, Francis Flynn noted that complaints about managers’ communication were common, and often harsh. “More than just about any other leadership skill, people are fiercely criticized for poor communication,” says Flynn, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “The higher up you get, the more brutal that criticism becomes.” Noting this, he and doctoral candidate Chelsea Lide saw an opportunity to examine the quantity and quality of communication between managers and the people they supervise.

In a recent paper, Flynn and Lide examine the concept of “communication calibration.” They find that employees often see their leaders miscalibrating the amount they communicate. Indeed, they write, “leaders are often seen by their employees as undercommunicating rather than overcommunicating.”

The importance of how much leaders communicate became apparent during the pandemic, Lide says. “It brought into sharp relief just how important communication was, not only in terms of the message being communicated, but also how often people are checking in with one another and exactly how detailed leaders are being in their communication to employees.”

Flynn and Lide’s research shows that employees’ preference for too many versus too few messages stems from the perception that even if an overcommunicating leader can’t communicate the ideal amount, at least they mean well. Overcommunicators “may be given the benefit of the doubt by their employees, who might view them as trying to meet their needs, even if they are not necessarily succeeding,” Lide says. Making an effort can give the impression of empathy, whereas undercommunicators are “not really seen as trying at all. Instead, they tend to be seen as really missing the mark in terms of meeting the needs of their employees.”

Flynn says that these results contrast with prior research that found that information overload hurts employee performance. “Overcommunication may be seen as annoying and a nuisance, but it’s not seen as a damning flaw for a leader, partly because a leader’s overcommunication is seen as an attempt to benefit you, even if it is misguided, as opposed to an attempt to undermine you or simply ignore you.”

Communicating Concern

The authors conducted four studies to test their hypotheses that employees identify undercommunication as a leadership weakness more often than overcommunication and perceive undercommunicating managers as having relatively less concern and compassion. “Communication” was limited to task-related messages — not small talk or office chatter.

Quote
More than just about any other leadership skill, people are fiercely criticized for poor communication. The higher up you get, the more brutal that criticism becomes.
Attribution
Francis Flynn

Flynn and Lide examined qualitative comments from more than 2,700 archived leadership assessments. Less than a quarter of employees rated their manager as a well-calibrated communicator. Leaders who miscalibrated their communication were nearly 10 times more likely to be criticized for undercommunicating than overcommunicating. The assessments also showed that perceived empathy was significantly lower for undercommunicating leaders than for well-calibrated and overcommunicating leaders.

The researchers then tested their model’s robustness in a real-world setting, surveying employees on the perceived quantity of communication they had received from their managers and how much they’d prefer to receive. The results confirmed a lack of congruence between perceived and preferred communication; employees judged their undercommunicating leaders as lacking empathy and, in turn, leadership ability.

The Strong, Unsilent Type

Based on their findings, Flynn and Lide offer advice for leaders: Ask employees about their personal communication preferences, and when in doubt, increase the amount of task-related communication “to send a stronger message of caring and concern.”

Flynn says that many leaders falsely believe they are communicating the correct amount. “It might be that what they need at the start of their relationship with a direct report or any kind of project management role is to suss out the preferences that others have. Figuring that out upfront is going to serve them well down the line to make sure that others’ silence isn’t misinterpreted as a sign of success, when in fact, it’s a sign of struggle.”

If perfect calibration is an unrealistic goal, err on the side of overcommunicating, which relays a desire to see your employees succeed. When a leader overcommunicates, Flynn says, “you might not be very effective at helping, but at least you are not also coming across as completely unfeeling. When you’re undercommunicating, there’s no evidence of any pro-social motivation to go along with an apparent lack of helpfulness.”

These insights may seem counterintuitive to managers who believe in giving employees independence and letting them figure things out for themselves. “It seems to align with the trope of ‘You are your own startup,’” Lide says. “It’s very popular, especially in certain industries, to sell the narrative of complete autonomy. For that reason, I think managers might be biased toward leaving people to their own devices, whether that’s in the employees’ best interests or not.”

Instead, she says, leaders who want to send a strong signal of empathic concern should try to check in more frequently or add a few more bullets to an email, both to provide guidance and show support. And there may be a time and place for undercommunication, if used strategically. “You might suffer in terms of being perceived as a leader who engages in tough love, but if that ultimately helps your employees’ development, that might be a trade-off a manager has to make for the benefit of the people who work with them.”

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