Beverly Flaxington

Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.

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Dear Bev,

Our boss is a terrible communicator. He rarely holds meetings to speak to us as a team, but when he does he always stumbles over his words or says something totally inappropriate. He will say things that are meant to inspire us or motivate us but they come out garbled and un-motivating. I’m embarrassed for him because we all cringe waiting for the things he will say that we’ll then talk about for weeks. I don’t know if it is possible for us to bring his mistakes to his attention. He must know he isn’t very good but do all speakers who speak poorly know that? Is there a proper way to approach him and suggest some changes? Are there specific changes we should suggest?

L.S.

Dear L.S.,

Becoming a strong communicator is one of the things that separates the best leaders from the rest. Let’s take your questions in order. Do you think he knows he “speaks poorly?” What is the definition of “poor?” It’s important, in any communication, to consider the objectives or outcomes. If your boss simply wants to open dialogue, or share some insights then he may believe he is doing fine to meet that objective. In any communication, the first step is to establish what you want for an outcome. Your boss might be setting an expectation at the outset of the meeting, but you are missing it because you are so focused on his errors. Be sure to listen to what he hopes to achieve.

Your second question is a sticky one – no, I would say that many speakers who speak poorly may not realize they are doing it. This is a behavioral issue and one that comes up in all kinds of communication. Do you notice every time you have lost someone’s attention, or when you say something that is off-putting to someone or when someone has tuned you out? Many people are completely unaware of how they come across so my suspicion is that your boss may believe he is doing a fine job, unless he hears otherwise from team members. Again, assuming he is not meeting the objectives he has set for the communication.

Lastly, there are always changes you can suggest. Whenever giving feedback remember however that while you may offer feedback, and may even do it clearly and objectively, it’s always incumbent on the receiver to do with it what they will! So, a caution here that just because you give the feedback, doesn’t mean anything will change.

When you give feedback be extremely specific. “I believe you wanted to get the team excited about our new compliance system when you talked about how much it cost. Instead, it seemed as if you spent too much time talking about how much was spent on it and not enough on what the system can actually do,” would be an example. It’s not helpful to say, “You say a lot of inappropriate things,” The operative question is “what things?” If you want someone to truly change a behavior, you really have to be clear and specific about what they are doing and what needs to be different.

All of this said, you have to answer whether your boss is someone who can hear your message and whether it is politically advantageous to you to say something. There are some people who would welcome it and appreciate candid feedback and others who will hold something negative against you. This is why I never believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to these issues.