Over-Communicate to Be a Better LeaderEvery morning, Clay Morgan sends an email that has company-wide priorities for the day, things to get accomplished, and an article to read that helps set the tone for the day.

In the beginning, I teased him mercilessly about it. But the truth of the matter is, we all love this ritual.

He finds off-the-beaten path stuff and he almost always accompanies his article recommendation with a personal story about focus, innovation, growth, culture, or working smarter.

Last week, the article was a blog post from Michael Roberto, the author of “Know What You Don’t Know” (which is sitting on my nightstand waiting to be read).

Titled “You Have to Sweat the Small Stuff,” he includes a quote from a New York Times interview with Christy Wyatt, the CEO of Good Technology.

Sweat the Small Stuff

She said:

We’re a Silicon Valley company, so we have a very full kitchen. I hired a new head of business operations, and she decided we were going to switch out the vendors. There was a week when the supply went very low because the next vendor was coming in a couple of weeks later to kind of set up. Because we hadn’t said anything about it, and the food was starting to run low, people started saying, “There’s layoffs coming; bad things are going to happen.”  I actually had to say in an all-hands meeting, “Guys, it’s just the nuts in the kitchen. That’s it.” But people look for symbols, and they look for meaning where maybe there isn’t any. So now we’re over-communicating. You have to talk about the little stuff as well as the big stuff, just to make sure folks aren’t running away with ideas.

Roberto uses that quote to talk about how important it is to over-communicate.

He says, “People will interpret actions based on their own worries and concerns, and they will infer important meaning even when you deem certain issues and actions largely inconsequential.”

A Personal Story

Back in 2006-2008, when we had office space and more than 20 professionals running around the place, the only way to get any privacy was to close my door.

I had an open door policy, but there were times – HR meetings, leadership coaching, private phone calls – that required a closed door.

Occasionally, if I really needed to focus, particularly if I were creating a client strategy or writing, I would close my door so I could work uninterrupted.

But it happened so rarely, it never occurred to me people saw that as a sign something was wrong.

One day, I had closed my door for a meeting with my Vistage Chair, and when I emerged two hours later, our managing director said we needed to go for a walk.

We left the building and she told me people were freaking out that something was going on because my door had been closed for TWO HOURS. (They never put together the walks were when the real problems were discussed.)

I was a bit incredulous. It was just a meeting with my Vistage Chair. The door was closed because we often discussed business challenges not everyone needed to know or be privy to and we needed to do so without being interrupted.

Nothing was wrong.

But she was right. The mood in the office afterwards made me feel like I was attending a funeral.

Leadership Requires One to Over-Communicate

I quickly called an all staff meeting and, in less than five minutes, explained that nothing was wrong. I simply was meeting with my Vistage Chair and that required a closed door so we wouldn’t be interrupted.

We went around the room and people voiced their concerns.

I heard everything from “Well, so-and-so said we’re going to lose a client” to “The sign you put on the A/C that says not to change the temperature makes me think we don’t have money to pay the bill.”

To say I was shocked at some of the things I was hearing is an understatement.

I mean, really. The sign was on the A/C because it was FREEZING in there and I didn’t want it lower than 72 degrees.

To Roberto’s point, as a leader, you may not intend to signal anything other than what’s there at face value, but all eyes are on you.

If you put up a sign saying people are not to lower the A/C and then you take a random closed door meeting, they’re going to assume the company is going out of business.

It’s not rational. It’s human.

Always over-communicate, explain the why behind decisions, and be open to questions.