Communication and Leadership

Dr John A. Kline

(This article was prepared especially for AU-24, Concepts for Air Force Leadership.)

The importance of effective communication to leaders is demonstrated daily in all organizations. Indeed, since 1938 when Chester Barnard concluded that communication was the main task of managers and executives, emphasis has been placed on improving communication in organizations.1

A study by Dan B. Curtis and others supports what previous studies by other researchers have found: Effective communication skills are tantamount to success for the business organization.2 Results of this nationwide survey and later ones lead Curtis to conclude that chief executives and other senior leaders place the highest value on effective interpersonal communication because they know that productivity depends on effective communication.3

Commanders and supervisors must keep Air Force military and civilian members informed. But not only is communication down the chain of command important, subordinates need to keep each other and their superiors informed. In other words, to be effective, communication channels need to be open down, up, and throughout the organization.

The primary responsibility for communication in any organization rests with those in leadership positions, since subordinates take cues on how to communicate from those above them. What, then, can a leader do to improve communication in your organization?

Establish the Working Climate

The first step in improving communication is to provide a good working climate. A leading authority on communication and leadership, W. Charles Redding, said, "A member of any organization is, in large measure, the kind of communicator that the organization compels him to be." One of the most compelling factors influencing communication is the organizational climate imposed by the leaders. Three basic climates might be labeled (1) dehumanized climate, (2) overhumanized climate, and (3) situational climate.

The Dehumanized Climate

For years, most organizations were founded on the model of a master-slave relationship. Certainly, the military has not been exempt from this kind of thinking. The work of Frederick W. Taylor in the early part of this century is often associated with the dehumanized climate.5 Taylor has been credited with suggesting a leadership philosophy that neglects human relations in the workplace.

The basic assumptions of the dehumanized climate are that subordinates are lazy, won't take responsibility, lack desire to achieve significant results, demonstrate inability to direct their own behavior, show indifference to organizational needs, prefer to be led by others, and avoid making decisions whenever possible. Supervisors communicate their belief in such assumptions by withholding information (since confidential information is not safe with subordinates), telling subordinates not only what to do but how to do it, doing all the upward and lateral communication themselves (if the subordinate's idea is good, they handle it themselves; if they think it is bad, they crush it), and talking individually with subordinates (seldom in groups) to keep each person competing for their favor.

This communication behavior of the supervisors, in turn, affects the communication behavior of subordinates. Since information is not shared, subordinates become very ingenious at ferreting out secrets. And a secret is of no status unless it can be shared. This is how leaks occur. Because supervisors also show lack of confidence by telling subordinates how to do the work, subordinates fulfill the lack of confidence by not readily assuming new tasks. Considering that supervisors handle all upward and lateral communication, subordinates learn little about other parts of the organization and, therefore, prove their assumed indifference to organization needs. Since supervisors either kill ideas or send good ones forward themselves, subordinates are not motivated to present new ideas. Because supervisors do not communicate with subordinates in groups, subordinates form informal alliances to spread information.

Overhumanized Climate

This climate is at the other end of the continuum. Instead of dehumanization, there is undue preoccupation with human relationships. Though the dehumanized climate can be traced to the work of Frederick W. Taylor, the overhumanized climate has its roots in the famous Hawthorne studies, which highlighted the importance of social relationships to production.

The basic assumptions of the overhumanized approach are that human relations are more important than organizational objectives, conflicts and tensions should be reduced at all costs, motivation of subordinates should be almost totally intrinsic and self-directed, and participate decision making is always superior to decisions by one or a few. Supervisors communicate their belief in this approach by emphasizing individual needs more than organizational ones.

In some instances these assumptions will produce positive and productive results, but there is a high frequency of undesirable responses. Subordinates often respond to the overhumanized climate in ways not in the best interest of the organization. The consistent concern for needs and welfare of individuals further emphasizes that these are more important than organizational goals and may eventually lead to the destruction of the organization. Since absence of conflict is emphasized, attempts are often made to create the appearance of harmony and warm interpersonal relationships, even when tensions and conflicts are present. Therefore, instead of manifesting themselves through conflict at the workplace, tensions and emotions are often relieved with husbands, wives, families, and friends-ultimately more damaging to individuals than conflict at work. Undue emphasis on intrinsic motivation suggests that something is wrong with individuals who are motivated by external factors, such as raises or promotions. Belief in decision making exclusively by the group causes subordinates to be dissatisfied with directives from supervisors.

Situational Climate

The situational climate might be viewed as somewhere between the dehumanized and overhumanized climates. More correctly, however, this approach contends that organizational goals and individual goals need not be at odds with one another. Certainly one of the best-known advocates of this view was Douglas McGregor.6 McGregor called for an "appropriate" approach, based on an assessment of individual and organizational needs. By definition, the situational approach suggests that an "appropriate" climate be established for each situation. When necessary to use a strict uncompromising discipline, it is used. When necessary to structure work experience to enhance a person's self-development, it is done.

There are three assumptions basic to establishing a situational climate. First, a flexible climate that can adapt to the complex and changing nature of individual and organizational needs is superior to a fixed climate. Second, individuals are not naturally passive or resistant to organizational needs or reluctant to assume responsibility. Third, since individuals are not basically lazy, work can be structured to bring individual and organizational goals in line with one another.

The supervisor who communicates willingness to establish a situational climate-one that fits individuals and situations-can expect certain responses from subordinates. First, subordinates' feelings of self-worth and respect for others will likely increase. This increase will most likely lead to improved communication. It may also bring expressions of disagreement, which can then be dealt with. Second, perception of similarity between personal and organizational goals should promote increased productivity, which, in turn, may increase the amount of intrinsic motivation and a greater sense of responsibility by subordinates. Third, subordinates will probably bring other work behaviors in line with organizational objectives. Establishment of the appropriate organizational climate promotes effective communication. In addition, there are positive steps a leader can take to improve communication in the organization.

Ways to Improve Communication

Often leaders shy away from simple lists of suggestions and guidelines. Yet by following basic suggestions we can become better leaders and enhance communication. Here, then, are practical suggestions for effective communication.

Encourage Feedback

Subordinates discover quickly what leaders want and supply that information to them. But subordinates are unlikely to provide negative feedback or give supervisors bad news since they fear that, much like ancient messengers delivering bad news, they will be punished. The familiar story of "The Emperor's New Clothes" illustrates unwillingness of subordinates to communicate honestly to superiors.

What then can you do to help accurate feedback reach you?

1. Tell subordinates you want feedback. Encourage them to give you both good and bad news. Welcome disagreement on issues. Then, make certain you positively reinforce rather than punish them for such information.

2. Identify areas in which you want feedback. Don't encourage indiscriminate feedback consisting of idle talk of personal gripes about others in the organization. Do communicate your desire for feedback on issues and areas that can help the organization.

3. Use silence to promote feedback. Listen, and encourage feedback rather than taking issue with comments raised by subordinates.

4. Watch for nonverbal cues. Most persons do not control nonverbal responses as well as verbal ones. The person who says, "I am so happy to meet you" as he draws away from the other person, probably communicates more by actions than by words.

5. Consider scheduling feedback sessions. Since it is easier to prevent illness than to treat it, set aside time for feedback. A planned feedback session will usually get more response than an impulsive, "How are things going?"

6. Use statements to encourage feedback. Statements such as "Tell me more about it," or "That's interesting," or questions that cannot be answered yes or no will help you find out what is going on in your organization. Start your questions with what, why, when, where, and how to encourage feedback.

Listen Effectively

To receive feedback leaders must listen. Listening is the neglected communication skill. All leaders have had instruction in reading, writing, and speaking. But few have had any formal instruction in listening. This lack of instruction is especially interesting in light of research showing that people spend seven out of every 10 minutes awake in some form of communication- 10 percent writing, 15 percent reading, 30 percent talking, and 45 percent listening.

Here are some things you can do to improve your listening.

1. Prepare to listen. Effective listening requires physical and mental preparation. Put aside papers, books, and other materials that may distract you. Have the secretary hold your calls. Avoid unnecessary interruptions. Be ready to catch the speaker's opening remarks. The rest of the message often builds on the opening statement.

2. Listen for ideas, not just for facts. Concentration exclusively on the facts often causes leaders to miss main ideas. Facts may be interesting in their own right, but the reason facts are given is usually to develop a generalization from them.

3. Keep an open mind. Often the subject or the delivery of the speaker may seem boring or uninteresting. Certain subjects or individuals may cause the listeners to become judgmental, hear only certain parts of the message, or just hear what they want to hear. Effective listening requires an open mind.

4. Capitalize on the speed differential. Thought operates several times faster than the normal rate of speech. In other words, listeners listen faster than speakers speak. Don't fall into the trap of daydreaming or trying to think about something else while listening. Use this time differential to summarize and internalize the message.

5. Put yourself in the speaker's place. Understand the speaker's perspective. What do you know about the speaker's knowledge, background, and grasp of the subject? What does the speaker mean by the words and nonverbal communication he or she uses?

Reduce Communication Misunderstanding

Although there are many barriers to effective understanding, four of them arise directly from misunderstanding the message. Knowing these barriers can help you reduce problems of communication.

1. Barrier #]: Misinterpretation of the meanings of words. There are two basic problems here.

a. Same words mean different things to different people. This problem is common whenever two or more people attempt to communicate. You may tell a colleague that the temperature in the office is quite comfortable. For you, 75 degrees is comfortable. For her, comfortable means 68 degrees. The same word can in mean different things to different people. A friend tells you he will be over in five minutes. To him, five minutes means "soon" -- perhaps any time in the next half-hour. On the other hand, you attach a literal meaning. Five minutes means five minutes-300 seconds.

b. Different words mean the same thing. Many things are called by more than one name. Soft drink, soda, and pop all mean the same thing. The name used depends on who is doing the talking. Both this barrier and the first one can be overcome by realizing the following fact: Meanings are not in words, meanings are in people. Leaders communicate more effectively when they consider the message in relation to its source.

2. Barrier #2: Misinterpretation of actions.

Eye contact, gestures, facial expression are all action factors. When someone walks quickly out of the room during a meeting or taps a pencil on the table during a conversation, leaders may conclude that the person is in a hurry or is bored. These conclusions may or may not be correct. If others twitch, or seem unsure while speaking we may conclude that they are nervous when, in fact, they may not be.

3. Barrier #3: Misinterpretation of nonaction symbols.

The clothes you wear, the automobile you drive, the objects in your office all communicate things about you. In addition, your respect for time and space needs of others affects how you interpret their messages. For example, if a subordinate is to see you at noon, but arrives fifteen minutes late, his tardiness may affect how you interpret what he says to you.

4. Barrier #4: Misinterpretation of the voice.

The quality, intelligibility, and variety of the voice all affect understanding. Quality refers to the overall impression the voice makes on others. Listeners often infer from the voice whether the speaker is happy, sad, fearful, or confident. Intelligibility or understandability depends on such things as articulation, pronunciation, and grammatical correctness. Variety is the spice of speaking. Rate, volume, force, pitch, and emphasis are all factors of variety that influence understanding.7

Communication with Key Personnel

It probably goes without saying that you should communicate one-on-one with your key persons often. Certain guidelines apply to establishment and maintenance of effective communication with key subordinates:

1. Show genuine interest and concern with facial expression, head nods, gestures, and bodily posture which reflect openness and positive reinforcement.

2. Put the other person at ease by appearing relaxed and breaking down barriers with friendliness.

3. Be natural, because genuineness and sincerity are foundations for effective two-person communication.

4. Do not assume a superior manner or pretend to be what you're not.

5. Adapt to the conversation as it develops with spontaneous comments rather than plowing ahead with "prepared" comments or arguments.

6. Respect the other person's point of view.

7. Seek to understand what the other person really means and not necessarily what is said.

8. Reduce your own defensiveness.

9. Do not dominate the conversation to the point that you shut the other person out.

10. Listen attentively by concerning yourself with what the other person is saying instead of planning what you are going to say.

Promote Group Consensus

One of the biggest problems supervisors face is getting the group to reach consensus. There are many times, of course, when you must make an independent decision and stick to it. But increasingly, policy decisions are hammered out in the give-and-take of small-group discussions. Problem solving is certainly a goal of decision-making groups at all levels, but often consensus or agreement is just as important. If a decision is reached without consensus, morale and unit satisfaction both may suffer. With genuine consensus, a unit tends to support and implement the new policy willingly.

The following five suggestions for reaching consensus are based on a longer list formulated after much research and careful analysis of decision-making groups.8

1. Clarify the discussion. Make sure that the group's activity is understandable, orderly, and focused on one issue at a time. Consensus comes more easily if factors are weighed individually and systematically. Encourage each person to stick to the subject, to avoid side discussions, and to clarify the issues with questions.

2. Use process statements. Process statements deal with what is happening in the group. While process statements may relate to the content, they primarily stimulate and facilitate discussion: "What you've said seems to make sense. How do the rest of you feel?" or "So far, we seem to agree on the first two points. Let's move on to the third," or "Have we heard from Joe yet?" or "This is really a productive discussion." When both the leader and group members use process statements effectively, agreement will come more readily and satisfaction will be increased.

3. Seek different views. All persons should be encouraged to present their views and provide information and evidence to support their views. Expression of a wide range of opinions and views allows a great opportunity for learning to take place. At the same time, participation by all persons will allow them to have their voices heard and will increase their satisfaction with the discussion and conclusions reached.

4. Remain open to different views. This suggestion is clearly the corollary to the preceding guideline. We have all known people who seek the views of others with no intent to be influenced by them: "Don't confuse me with the facts; my mind is made up." When others present irrefutable facts and figures, or even a good idea that you may not have thought of before, don't be afraid to alter your position or admit that you may have been wrong. Good leaders often learn from their subordinates. Also, leaders can serve as models for the behavior of others in the matter of not being overopinionated. Studies have shown that low or moderately opinionated supervisors are held in higher esteem by others than highly opinionated ones.

5. Use group pronouns. Studies show that less cohesive groups-groups which are less successful in reaching consensus-tend to use more self-referent words, such as I, me, my, and mine. Groups which reach consensus and are more cohesive, on the other hand, are more apt to use group referent words such as we, our, and us. As a leader, talk about the group. Talk about what we hope to accomplish, and how we can work together to achieve our objectives. Do not emphasize what I want done or what is best for my interests. Stress that while all persons should be concerned with their own unit or division, they should also be interested in the needs of others in the group.


Effective leaders recognize the importance of good communication. Communication problems can cause bottlenecks in the organization. The next time you are tempted to blame subordinates for bottlenecks, stop and examine a bottle. Notice where the neck is. It is not at the bottom.

Responsible leaders work hard to prevent bottlenecks and keep channels open up, down, and throughout the organization by (1) establishing an appropriate working climate and adjusting their communication behavior to fit the situation, and (2) practicing techniques to improve communication in their organization.


1. Chester Barnard, The Function of the Executive (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938).

2. Dan B. Curtis, Jerry L. Winsor, and Ron Stephens, The Ideal Entry-Level and Management Profile (Central Missouri State University Research, 1985-1986), 21-25.

3. Interview by author with Dr Dan B. Curtis, 16 February 1995.

4. W. Charles Redding and George A. Sanborn, Business and Industrial Communication: A Source Book (New York: Harper and Row, 1964),29.

5. Frederick W. Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1911).

6. Douglas M. McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1960).

7. See John A. Kline, Speaking Effectively (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1988).

8. For a more complete discussion, see John A. Kline, "Consensus in Small Groups: Deriving Suggestions from Research," in Small Group Communication: A Reader, Robert S. Cathcart and Larry A. Samovar, 4th ed. (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm C. Brown Publishers, 1984).

Dr John A. Kline, a senior executive (SES) and the academic provost of Air University, Dr Kline received a bachelors degree in English and speech education from Iowa State University. His masters and PhD degrees in interpersonal communication are from the University of Iowa. He was professor of communication at both the University of New Mexico and the University of Missouri. He was dean of communications skills at the Academic Instructor School and Foreign Officer School of Air University from 1975 to 1982 and educational advisor to the Air University commander from 1982 to 1986.