If you want to be an effective leader, you need to excel in communication. In fact, the success of your business relies on it.

According to a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (pdf), poor communication can lead to low morale, missed performance goals, and even lost sales. A separate study found that inadequate communication can cost large companies an average of $64.2 million per year, while smaller organizations are at risk of losing $420,000 annually.

But effective communication impacts more than just the bottom line. For leaders, it’s what enables them to rally their team around a shared vision, empower employees, build trust, and successfully navigate organizational change.

Why Is Communication Important in Leadership?

A leader is someone who inspires positive, incremental change by empowering those around them to work toward common objectives. A leader’s most powerful tool for doing so is communication.

Effective communication is vital to gain trust, align efforts in the pursuit of goals, and inspire positive change. When communication is lacking, important information can be misinterpreted, causing relationships to suffer and, ultimately, creating barriers that hinder progress.

If you’re interested in enhancing your leadership capabilities, here are eight communication skills you need to be more effective in your role.

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Essential Communication Skills for Leaders

1. Ability to Adapt Your Communication Style


Different communication styles are the most frequently cited cause of poor communication, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (pdf), and can lead to more significant issues, such as unclear priorities and increased stress.

It’s essential to identify your leadership style, so that you can better understand how you’re interacting with, and perceived by, employees across the organization. For example, if you’re an authoritative leader, you likely have a clear vision for achieving success and align your team accordingly. While an effective approach for some, it might fall flat for others who seek more autonomy in their role.

Every employee’s motivations are different, so knowing how to tailor your communication is essential to influencing others and reaching organizational goals.

Related: 4 Tips for Developing Your Personal Leadership Style

2. Active Listening


Effective leaders know when they need to talk and, more importantly, when they need to listen. Show that you care by asking for employees’ opinions, ideas, and feedback. And when they do share, actively engage in the conversation—pose questions, invite them to elaborate, and take notes.

It’s important to stay in the moment and avoid interrupting. Keep your focus on the employee and what it is they’re saying. To achieve that, you also need to eliminate any distractions, including constant pings on your cell phone or checking incoming emails.

3. Transparency


In a survey by the American Management Association, more than a third of senior managers, executives, and employees said they “hardly ever” know what’s going on in their organizations. Transparency can go a long way in breaking down that communication barrier.

By speaking openly about the company’s goals, opportunities, and challenges, leaders can build trust amongst their team and foster an environment where employees feel empowered to share their ideas and collaborate. Just acknowledging mistakes can encourage experimentation and create a safe space for active problem-solving.

Every individual should understand the role they play in the company’s success. The more transparent leaders are, the easier it is for employees to make that connection.

4. Clarity


When communicating with employees, speak in specifics. Define the desired result of a project or strategic initiative and be clear about what you want to see achieved by the end of each milestone. If goals aren’t being met, try simplifying your message further or ask how you can provide additional clarity or help.

The more clear you are, the less confusion there will be around priorities. Employees will know what they’re working toward and feel more engaged in the process.

5. Ability to Ask Open-Ended Questions


If you want to understand employees’ motivations, thoughts, and goals better, practice asking open-ended questions. Jennifer Currence, president of consulting firm The Currence Group, said to the Society of Human Resource Management to use the acronym TED, which stands for:

  • Tell me more.”
  • Explain what you mean.”
  • Define that term or concept for me.”

By leveraging those phrases when speaking with your team, you can elicit more thoughtful, thorough responses and ensure you also have clarity around what they need from you to succeed.

6. Empathy


There’s a reason empathy has been ranked the top leadership skill needed for success. The better you get at acknowledging and understanding employees’ feelings and experiences, the more heard and valued they’ll feel.

In a recent survey (pdf), 96 percent of respondents said it was important for their employers to demonstrate empathy, yet 92 percent claimed it remains undervalued. If you want to improve your communication and build a stronger, more productive culture, practice responding with empathy.

Related: Emotional Intelligence Skills: What They Are & How to Develop Them

7. Open Body Language


Communication isn’t just what you say; it’s how you carry yourself. Ninety-three percent of communication’s impact comes from nonverbal cues, according to executive coach Darlene Price.

To ensure you’re conveying the right message, focus on your body language. If you’re trying to inspire someone, talking with clenched fists and a furrowed brow isn’t going to send the right message. Instead, make eye contact to establish interest and rapport and flash a genuine smile to convey warmth and trust.

8. Receiving and Implementing Feedback


Asking for feedback from your team can not only help you grow as a leader, but build trust among your colleagues. It’s critical, though, that you don’t just listen to the feedback. You also need to act on it.

If you continue to receive feedback from your team, but don’t implement any changes, they’re going to lose faith in your ability to follow through. It’s likely there will be comments you can’t immediately act on—be transparent about that. By letting your employees know they were heard and then apprising them of any progress you can, or do, make, they’ll feel as though you value their perspective and are serious about improving.

Related: How to Give Feedback Effectively

Leadership Principles: Unlock your leadership potential. Learn more.

Improving Your Leadership Communication

Communication is at the core of effective leadership. If you want to influence and inspire your team, you need to practice empathy and transparency, and understand how others perceive you, through your verbal and non-verbal cues.

To improve your communication skills and become a better leader, begin by assessing your effectiveness so you can identify areas for improvement. Then, set goals and hold yourself accountable by creating a leadership development plan to guide and track your progress.

Do you want to enhance your leadership skills? Download our free leadership e-book and explore our online course Leadership Principles to discover how you can become a more effective leader and unleash the potential in yourself and others.

(This post was updated on June 16, 2020. It was originally published on November 14, 2019.)

Lauren Landry

About the Author

Lauren Landry is the associate director of marketing and communications for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at Northeastern University and BostInno, where she wrote nearly 3,500 articles covering early-stage tech and education—including the very launch of HBS Online. When she's not at HBS Online, you might find her teaching a course on digital media at Emerson College, chugging coffee, or telling anyone who's willing to listen terribly corny jokes.