Has Anyone Seen the Boss Lately?

The Dilemma of the Non-communicating Leader


The Dilemma of the Non-communicating Leader

I recently had this exchange:

Dr. Mintle, I wonder if you’ve ever had a boss who didn’t communicate. My boss is the worst, but now that we’re all isolated thanks to Covid, it’s like he doesn’t even exist. What do I do?

There are definitely bosses for whom communication is a foreign language. I’ve worked for a few of those, so yes, I understand your dilemma. BTW, a low-communicating leader is still communicating. Problem is, the void he creates sends a powerful message that can be equal parts frustrating and debilitating, not to mention, misunderstood.

So how does this happen?

First, I’m pretty sure your boss didn’t wake up recently thinking, “hmmm, what can I do today to frustrate all my colleagues? I know. I’ll become reclusive and non-communicative. That’ll drive them all crazy!”

Personality — you’ve heard me use the phrase, “Daddy Issues” before. So often our personality is learned from our family of origin. If your boss’ dad wasn’t a big communicator, most likely he won’t be either. It’s a style he grew up with and over the years that became an ingrained part of his personality. Not everyone is outgoing, engaging or gregarious. I had a boss once whose personality I often described as that of an engineer. Not to disparage engineers, but we recognize that certain jobs require far less human interaction. Those who succeed in those careers most likely don’t enjoy talking a lot.

Issues — was your boss more communicative in the past? Perhaps there are personal or professional issues that have become overwhelming and as a result, conveying information downline has become a lower priority. How does he handle stress? Have you seen new signs of depression?

The isolation in which we now live and work might have been the “final straw” for your leader.

In their book The Leadership Challenge, noted leadership scholars Kouzes and Posner discovered that exemplary leaders model the way. Modeling the way is not only about demonstrating how to act within your enterprise’s system, but it is also about communicating a desired leadership message. Consequently, a lack of communication also communicates powerfully. Unfortunately, it is a human’s default position to fill-in-the-blanks. In this case, we find ourselves imagining what the boss may have (or not have) meant with his silence. Or in the case of many introverted bosses, the one-line email response always leaves more to be desired. Did his “ok” mean, “ok, I like it?” or, “ok, that’s barely good enough?”

One of the gravest dangers of low-communicating leaders is that employees are too often on their own to interpret the message. And textual messages, devoid of face-to-face interaction and the opportunity to interpret both the verbal and the nonverbal, are even worse.

So what can be done to help a non-communicative boss become the paragon of full communication?

There are answers coming in the next blog.

Norm Mintle