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Leadership Communication 4.0

Requirements for leadership communication have constantly increased over time. Furthermore, the new generations, currently entering the labor market, have higher demands on leaders. They expect more than merely communicating information clearly, unambiguously and ensuring mutual understanding. A completely different, new communication style is required. Read about the reasons behind and how this new communication style can be developed.

Leadership Communication 4.0

- engaging, inspiring, at eye level -

Chances for leaders to increase their impact are huge

These days, more and more employees want to be understood and appreciated. Also, they are looking for meaning in their work. If work is perceived as a burden and not as pleasure, it has a negative impact on motivation and commitment and on the long-term success of an organization. This is well known.

In the past, leadership communication has widely been limited to command and control and the transfer of professional know how. In the future, leadership communication will need to meet higher standards if leaders want to avoid frustration, demotivation, and low engagement.

Recent research reveals that leaders currently receive poor marks for their communication and cooperation behavior. Leaders’ own perception of their communication diverges widely from the perception of their staff. This article explores the reasons behind this variation, what has changed and will change in terms of requirements for the future. It also signposts how future-oriented leadership communication 4.0 can be developed.

In the past requirements for leadership communication were relatively low

The pillars of traditional management theory are planning, rationality and continuity. These models assume that complexity is understandable and manageable. One follows linear, long-term plans, focuses on process improvements and the replication of activities. Task sharing, clear roles and competencies are there to ensure stability. The classical hierarchy seemed to be the most suitable organizational model for this way of working.

Organizational models and framework conditions always determine communication requirements and behavior. Thus, it was intended that leadership communication usually takes place on a factual level, only within one's own or the next higher or lower hierarchical level and is restricted to what is essential (instructions, control reports, etc.).

Requirements for leadership communication have constantly increased over time

Nowadays, very few companies are completely hierarchical. Even though only a few organizations have gone as far as introducing self-organization; matrix and project organizations within an overall hierarchical model are the rule. In a volatile, unpredictable environment of fast technical progress, linear thinking and actioning neither provide the quick solutions needed for rapidly changing market demands nor do they drive the necessary change

For leaders, this means that communication happens not only along hierarchical levels but also across the entire organization. A prerequisite for successful communication is that communication partners speak 'the same language'. Leaders must therefore successfully create a common understanding of reality with different colleagues. This is relatively easy in a homogeneous environment in which managers and employees are physically present at one place and have undergone a similar socialization.

However, the increasing extent of globalization requires leaders to communicate interculturally. They must develop an appropriate communication style which is effective in a heterogeneous environment with different dimensions of culture. This can be challenging if leaders tend to only perceive their own construction of reality and assume that others have the same (which is unlikely).

These aspects become even more challenging as communication increasingly happens virtually. This means that contextual information, such as body language or characteristics of the environment, are missing or only partly available. Also, different virtual communication channels may have different meanings for each employee. For example, for one colleague, only e-mail exchange is binding, for another it is the spoken word in a videoconference.

To communicate successfully in a diverse and virtual environment, a certain sensitivity and openness are required, as well as the situational adaption of effective communication techniques. Only then can a leader minimize the risk of misunderstanding or conflict and foster mutual understanding.

Nevertheless, in the future even the above-mentioned communication skills will not be sufficient. The new generations, currently entering the labor market, have higher demands on leaders. They expect more than merely communicating information clearly, unambiguously and ensuring mutual understanding.

The Millennials are on their way and have their own concepts for communication and cooperation

Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) already represent the largest population group worldwide. By 2020, they will also represent the largest group of employees.

They are so-called 'digital natives' and have a completely different attitude to their job than previous generations. Corporate culture, teamwork and communities are most important for them. They are looking for meaning at work rather than pursuing a career. The enormous challenges are already becoming obvious today. According to a recent Gallup study, only 38% of millennials are engaged at work when they work in a multigenerational environment. The reason: Older leaders do not respond to their needs.

In addition to finding meaning at work and the desire for teamwork, millennials have very specific needs and expectations regarding communication and cooperation. They want:

  • to participate,
  • to network,
  • to build communities,
  • to communicate with everybody independent from hierarchical level,
  • to be listended to,
  • to work with state-of-the-art collaboration platforms,
  • to have two-way communication instead of top-down communication,
  • to practice multimodal communication through videos, text, photos, emojis, gifts.

We are already talking of the 'war for talents'. Without doubt, companies must prepare themselves to meet the expectations of millennials if they want to attract and retain young talents in the future.

Leaders who still maintain a traditional communication style need to move away from hierarchical top-down communication. Only by applying a new, fresh style they will be able to network with employees, communicate effectively at eye level, meet the new requirements in general and improve their marks for their communication competencies.

Leadership Communication 4.0 is not just a new communication technique, but also a question of self-conception

If Leadership Communication 4.0 means more than mutual understanding, how can it be shaped precisely?

Leadership Communication 4.0 as referred to in this article should be inspiring and motivating. Communication must be emotive and happen on the relationship level, too. Successful, interpersonal communication is not only a question of communication technique, but also a question of one's own self-conception. Leaders can only communicate credibly and effectively with others on the relationship level if they:

  • practice active listening,
  • speak in a way that others can understand,
  • understand and manage their own emotions,
  • recognize their own needs and know how to fulfil them,
  • see and respect the needs of others and consider them whenever possible,
  • are aware that their own perception which may differ from that of others,
  • request feedback and reflect on it,
  • appreciate others’ opinions and acknowledge them as an opportunity to broaden their perspectives,
  • are able to distinguish between observations, feelings, judgements and interpretations.

A leader who has these skills and practices them, will be perceived as approachable, authentic and confident. This will result in the ability to motivate and engage employees of every culture and age through all communication channels. The new leader is effective through personality, and not because of power and position.

It seems likely that the new communication and cooperation styles driven by millennials will shape the culture of future organizations and create new ways of working beyond strict hierarchies. Employees are then seen not as vicarious agents along a rational value chain, but are perceived and appreciated as humans with all their resources, feelings and needs.

Effective communication has become leadership competence # 1.

Sources (mainly in German):

Information Factory (2015): Deutschland führt?!, survey conducted by Information Factory, Zürich, Nürnberg, Porto (last downloaded on 28.05.2018)

IUBH Fernstudium (2012): Video Führung und Kommunikation, IUBH; Bad Honnef; (last downloaded on 28.05.2018)

Roither Dr. Michael (2014): Kommunikation in Management und Leadership, Ssurvey conducted by Donau-Universität; Krems (last downloaded on 28.05.2018)

Codorniou, Julien (2018): 6 Trends Shaping a Future for People in the Workplace, Entrepreneur Media Inc; Irvine (last downloaded on 28.05.2018)

Sommer, Ute (2014): master thesis; Neue Kommunikationsstile für neue Formen der Zusammenarbeit?, MakingScienceNews ; Wollerau