The old picture of leadership was one where the leader was supposed to project steady calm, confidence, and conviction. It was the idea of the leader with a map in one hand and a sword in the other, running uphill to conquer with masses of people following behind.
That model is dated.
Today’s workforce demands a new type of leadership, where the leader admits to not having it all figured out and that there could be rough seas ahead. Instead of projecting calm, this leader projects authenticity, vulnerability, and empathy. The message is “Look, we’re all in this mission together.”
But this new model of leadership is still rare.
According to Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” report, only 13% of U.S. employees strongly agreed that their organizations’ leadership communicates effectively. It’s no wonder, then, that most American workers said they are either not engaged (51%) or disengaged (16%).
We’ve learned in our work with C-suite leaders that the best place for them to start creating an authentic conversation is within the organization.
Scientific studies have long suggested that improved employee engagement results in better-performing employees and a better-performing business. Get internal communication right and the data shows you have an engaged and productive workforce. But get internal communication wrong and your miscommunications lose you both the trust of your employees and the opportunity to empower them to be brand champions.
Employees expect you to move past the PR, the spin, and the sugarcoating. They expect you to be open and honest. They expect you to be authentic.
According to Adam Grant, a social scientist from Wharton, “Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world.”
Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has a similar view. Authenticity, she said, is “the choice to let our true selves be seen.”
For a listener, it’s even more basic: You know it when you see it. Your intuition tells you that the person speaking actually believes what she is talking about, though you may not be able to put your finger on why.
In our work with business leaders, we’ve found four keys to authentic communication.
1. Natural, appropriate “nonverbal”: In a study we conducted looking at the communication of Fortune 100 CEOs, we found that the leaders with the highest authenticity scores corresponded with 34% more effective visual and 36% more effective vocal delivery scores than the averages.
For example, take a look at PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi in the video below. She comports herself exactly as you’d expect her to in a private, one-on-one conversation. Her tone is relaxed and natural—she’s using her own voice and not some contrived “stage” voice. Her gestures, too, feel appropriate to the points she is making. She uses her hands freely and organically to underscore her message, just as she might do in casual conversation with a friend. Nooyi took the third spot in our ranking of CEO authenticity.
2. Straightforward language: The linguistic hallmark of authentic speakers is that, when you listen to them address a large audience, you get the impression that they’d speak the same way over coffee. Consider this excerpt from Jamie Dimon’s now-infamous “rant” in J.P. Morgan’s July 2017 earnings call:
Since the Great Recession, which is now eight years old, we've been growing at 1.5 to 2% in spite of stupidity and political gridlock. Because the American business sector is powerful and strong, and is going to grow regardless of—people wake up in the morning, they want to feed their kids, they want to buy a home, they want to do things, the same with American businesses—what I'm saying is it would be much stronger growth had we made intelligent decisions and were there not gridlock. And thank you for pointing it out because I'm going to be a broken record until this gets done. We are unable to build bridges, we're unable to build airports, our inner city school kids are not graduating.
Whether you agree or disagree with Dimon, he is clearly not hedging his perspective or hiding it in meaningless language. He sounds like you would expect him to sound if he were speaking in private. Dimon ranked first in authenticity on our list.
3. Consistency of message for all audiences: Saying the right words and delivering them the right way are critical, but authentic leaders need to take it a step further and ensure they’re delivering the same message to every audience, both internal and external.
When Dustee Jenkins, former SVP of communications at Target, took over internal communications at the company, her goal was to make Target’s internal voice sound like its public-facing persona and to ensure employees were kept up-to-date on company news in a candid, straightforward way.
"We wanted to make sure we were talking to team members in real time," Jenkins said.
By keeping employees in the loop, and by making a point to ensure the Target team heard important messaging before it hit the news, Jenkins and the rest of Target’s leadership were able to send morale and engagement through the roof.
4. Create trust through message ownership: In his keynote at the 2016 AT&T ERG conference, CEO Randall Stephenson used plenty of “I” language to make it clear that he is taking responsibility for a bold message about tolerance. He didn’t attribute his stance to some third party; he claimed it as his conviction.
If this is a dialogue that's going to begin at AT&T, I feel like it probably ought to start with me … I want you to hear something, and this is really important, and I want to finish with this. I'm not asking you to be tolerant of each other. Tolerance is for cowards. Being tolerant requires nothing from you but to be quiet and to not make waves, holding tightly to your views and judgments without being challenged. Do not tolerate each other. Work hard. Move into uncomfortable territory, and understand each other.
But, perhaps even more importantly, Stephenson went below the surface. Research shows that speakers are perceived to be more trustworthy when they can offer insights as to the hows and whys behind their messages, explaining not only what is or has happened but what isn’t true as a result. Stephenson ranked second on our list.
While big companies have the challenge of projecting authenticity at scale, those at smaller companies have an equally significant challenge: building trust with employees while riding what can be an extreme rollercoaster. For small companies, the highs feel very high and the lows feel very low. As leaders, the temptation is to smooth things out in our messaging, to paint a positive picture no matter what.
I’ve learned firsthand that employees are smarter than that. They already know when things are going well and when they are not—they just want honest conversation. Inauthentic communication is easily ignored, while authentic leadership can unlock fresh contributions and connections from unexpected corners of the company.