Communication – More Than Words

Published by Mark Zerbach on

Leadership Article Series


In almost any book on improving or growing a business, there will be a section on communication. While everyone understands that communication is important, it’s rare to find effective communication in an organization. Effective communication makes everything work more efficiently, saving time and money. Employees who understand what’s expected of them are happier and more effective. It’s vital to understand that communication involves talking, but words only represent about 15% of what gets communicated. If leaders hope to make positive changes, they need to analyze both direct and indirect forms of communication. Then, they need to establish an intentional and deliberate plan for all types of communication.

Key Terms

  • Communication: messages sent to others via words, actions, and decisions.
  • Communication plan: a system that addresses all types of communication in a company


If you want to make positive changes in your organization, you’ll need to engage all of your employees in making that change. If you want to ask them to do things in a new and different way, you have to communicate to your employees what the new and different things are, and how they will play out for each person. True communication is not a one-time event, but a two-way system established to create an ongoing exchange.

Some leaders feel that they should hold back on information, believing that it diminishes their power or authority to share too much. Others fall short in communicating because they haven’t established it as a priority. Some don’t even consider communication to be their job. However, it’s only through clear and concise communication that your employees will achieve what you want them to achieve.

There are two ways that leaders communicate with people. The most obvious way is through words, which represent only about 15% of all communication. This includes conversations, email, newsletters, etc. Leaders tend to focus on this type of communication. However, most people base their decisions on the other 85% of communication. They look at the choices you make, how you treat people, what your priorities are, etc.

In order to improve communication throughout your organization, you need to have a communication plan in place that addresses all the different types of communication. Given the variety of ways that messages are sent and received, the plan must be fairly comprehensive. Below are examples of key areas to consider when developing this plan.

Direct communication:

  • Visual displays throughout the workplace
  • Progress charts
  • Walk-through conversations
  • Performance evaluations
  • Job descriptions
  • Trainings
  • Newsletters
  • Personal conversations
  • Team-building exercises
  • Email

Indirect communication:

  • Your company’s vision
  • What your prioritize
  • Promotions and demotions
  • Celebrations and awards
  • Correcting or ignoring bad behavior and performance
  • Chosen measures of success
  • Training plans
  • Your commitment to the vision
  • Teams your sponsor or cancel
  • People you stop and talk to and those you don’t talk to
  • Meetings you chose to hold and attend

This is not an exhaustive list, nor should leaders try to base their communication plan solely on this list. Work with members of your team to establish a plan that meets your organization’s specific needs. You need a plan that lets your employees know exactly what you want from them, so they can give you exactly that. Whatever is not explained explicitly will have to be guessed at, and we all know how that ends up most of the time.

Real-world example

At one point in my career, I worked under a very skilled leader who was determined to implement his vision throughout the company. Unfortunately, there was a lot of push-back from several different groups. Still, he knew his vision would be a huge benefit to both the company and the employees – even those who were pushing back.

Being the leader that he was, he knew the importance of communication in general, and in particular during a period of change. He knew that the only way he would make his vision a reality would be to hit all the communication channels that people used. He put an intentional and deliberate plan into place to help his employees see where the vision would take them and what they would need to do to make it happen. The plan was designed to communicate the vision in both direct and indirect ways.

Here are only a few of the elements of that communication plan:

Direct communication

  • A vision roll-out plan was printed and shared
  • A list of changes in priorities was explained to all groups
  • He walked the floor regularly, engaging with employees at all levels
  • He explicitly requested that employees be direct and candid about their experiences
  • Both good and bad news was openly shared
  • An employee-run newsletter was developed to share successes

Indirect communication

  • People who were unwilling to accept the vision were allowed to transfer
  • He pitched his vision to upper management
  • He established and attended meetings specific to the implementation of the vision
  • He made time for people who wanted to ask about his vision
  • Training was provided for new skills required by the vision
  • Each month, teams were recognized for their progress

All the elements of the communication plan worked together to cement the vision in people’s minds and make it real for them. In addition to all the ways that he opened up communication, he also worked to combat behaviors that hindered communication.

The teams were taught about the toxicity of triangulation and passive-aggressive behaviors, and that we wanted to create an environment were neither of these existed. Leadership made a commitment to support these efforts and drive unhealthy behaviors out of the organization. That meant if they caught one of us doing it, they needed to call us out and there would be no repercussions. We then taught them techniques they could use to conduct critical conversations that resulted in a win-win, and that would also be respectful of both sides in the conversation.

Our organization’s communication successes helped to make the big changes go smoothly and to eliminate the stress that the employees would have otherwise felt.

Categories: Leadership