Calibrating Communication

One of the most powerful tools we have as leaders, the one tool that can either spell disaster or success, is our communication.

Thinking of our communication as a “single setting tool” limits its possibilities and power. In reality, we have a “multi setting tool” that can be calibrated to any situation or individual.

A message’s impact is measured at the receiving end of communication. In other words, it’s not about what we say; it is all about how it is understood. Language barriers, missing background knowledge, attitudes, sociological & psychological blocks and lack of confidence may all be present on the receiving end of communication. By tuning in to these elements, we as leaders can adjust and adapt our communication to achieve our desired results.


Task completion that meets quality expectations in a timely manner is usually our desired end result of communication. With a focus only on the task, we may deliver the same information in the same manner to whoever is on the receiving end. Widening the focus to also include WHO is completing the task, enables us to not only increase the likelihood the task will be completed, but engage and build capacity amongst our teams.

The Situational Leadership® model is focused on the task to be completed and the Performance Readiness® of the person performing the task. It provides us a framework as leaders to match our communication delivery to the needs of whoever is completing the task.

First, we must think about what the individual has demonstrated. Do they have all the knowledge required for the task? Do they have experience? What specific skills required have we observed? Answering these questions will allow us to assess the person’s ABILITY.

Next, consider the individual’s WILLINGNESS to complete the task. The first component of willingness is confidence. Do they believe they can do the job? As Henry Ford wisely said, “If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right.”

The second component of willingness involves motivation? Do they have a desire to complete the task? Does the task present them with an opportunity for advancement or mastery within the trade? How will they be recognized for completion? Does the task tie into a greater purpose for them that aligns with their values?

The last component of willingness is the commitment to the task. Will they follow through? What have you seen demonstrated in this area?

All three must be present to consider the person fully willing. The combination of WILLINGNESS and ABILITY will determine how much directive and/or supportive communication is necessary.

If the person we are communicating with lacks ability and any piece of willingness to do the task, we will want to take a highly directive approach. For instance, a person brand new to a trade may be very motivated and committed to doing the task, but lack the confidence or skill. In this case, we will want to make sure our communication is structured logically and only contains necessary information. The communication will be mostly one-way with an “I talk/I decide” emphasis. Remember the acronym, KISS- Keep it simple and specific.

Don’t assume this is only necessary with new or young employees. Promoting development in our industry increases engagement and ensures having competent skilled workers available to move up and fill higher open positions. A common mistake when promoting internally is to assume that since a person was a “rock star” in their trade, they will magically master a new position such as foreman or supervisor.

For instance, a journeyman may be promoted to foreman. This new opportunity makes use of the knowledge and experience they have with their trade, and it now involves leading teams. People skills, which are vital to leadership success, are a new expectation of the role. New leaders need direct communication in managing expectations, providing feedback and navigating difficult conversations.

Now let’s take the person who has demonstrated he/she has some of the skills necessary to complete the task, in other words they have some ability. For instance, a HVAC tradesperson we are working with has demonstrated basic competency with ductwork, but the installation involves a few advanced techniques and skills that they know theoretically but not practically.

We can recognize the tradesperson is highly motivated and committed to the new skills, they are just not 100% confident in their own abilities. Now is the time to be highly directive in parts of the task that the worker is still not competent in. We will also dial up the support and encouragement.

In this way, we are assuming a coaching role with the individual. We still provide specifics and now include more of the “why” behind decisions. Our communication becomes more two-way and includes space for questions, in both directions. As the leader, we are still in charge of decisions and the conversation is focused on the task. In this “We talk/I decide” way, we are building buy-in and understanding.

In situations where team members have demonstrated they have the ability to complete tasks, and are not demonstrating the willingness, we as leaders need to dial down the directive and up the supportive behavior. If the problem we see is confidence, the our goal is get them to believe about themselves what we believe about them. Encouraging input and actively listening are crucial. We can empower the person to make decisions, support risk taking and offer praise often and enthusiastically. Where once we would tell, now we ask, “What do you think?” With this “we talk/you decide” approach, we are creating alignment.

What if the willingness glitch is one of motivation or commitment, rather than confidence? It is time for us to get curious. Many ineffective leaders choose to make assumptions at this point and miss opportunities to keep and utilize a valuable employee. As this approach is high on the supportive, we need to seek to understand what is going on in our employee’s head.

Lastly, is our team member who demonstrates both ability and willingness, in other words, “they got this!” Their situation calls for low (not NO) support and low (not NO) direction. In other words, get ready to delegate! “You decide/I trust”, becomes the operation. Our light supervision is still necessary and we need to make sure we are accessible. In this way, we are creating capacity both with the individual and amongst the trade.


When English is not one’s native language, challenges in communication may arise. The first thing to remember is that there are many layers to being fluent in a new language. The most basic layer comes with understanding the spoken word and moves progressively all the way to reading and writing at a sophisticated level. As leaders, we need to be aware of these levels and make sure we are communicating to the appropriate level of proficiency.

Contrary to popular action, adapting for language barriers does not look and sound like talking slower and louder. More effective behaviors include incorporating visuals to illustrate tasks and using gestures to enhance processes. We need to find the gestures that seem to make sense, and be consistent in using these. Use of infographics, diagrams, flowcharts, photographs all support understanding.

Most people are oblivious to how many idioms and how much slang (that makes no sense at all) we use in the English language. For example, we may try to motivate workers by using phrases like, “move up in the company” or, “not get canned”. When we express urgency, we may tell teams to, “make it snappy” or “hustle up”. These words taken literally make no sense at all to many non native English speakers. We need to make sure we are using simple phrases that literally make sense. Also, we need to be sensitive to phrases we are using from the worker's native language. We need to make sure phrases are being used appropriately and are not derogatory in nature.

Also important, is not assuming language proficiency equates to task ability. As we observe others in action, we can genuinely assess skill level on what is demonstrated. Promoting engagement by utilizing talent is important to all people. Respect for talent and culture will ensure we are tapping into all the potential on our team.

Lastly, repetition is an effective technique, not a nuisance. “Do I have to say it again?” we may often exclaim in frustration, and the simple answer is, “Yes, that would be helpful.” We can always check tonation, and body language and make sure we repeat often with the knowledge that each repetition is ensuring success.


We each tend to deliver communication in the style that we prefer to receive information. Good leaders take a few moments to pick up on another’s style and adapt in a way that will connect with that style. The DISC model of communication gives us a framework to quickly assess and adapt delivery based on two observations: Is the person more outgoing or reserved? Is the person more task oriented or people oriented?

If we notice someone who prefers a faster pace, is quick to make decisions and operates in a determined fashion, they may prefer a more direct, brief approach. DISC would consider this person a high “D”. We can get to the point quickly, avoid “chit chat” and long explanations. It would be in our best interest to focus on the goal to be accomplished and not be too concerned about emotions.

We may notice others also demonstrate a preference for fast pace and high energy, but are more focused on people and relationships. These are the people who are very animated and enjoy being involved with others, also known as high “I”. With this type, we should make sure we include a little social, “how ya’ doing?” We shouldn’t be afraid to cut off conversations (which we often may have to do), but include something like, “I appreciate you’ve got a lot to share, and we really need to get focused now.” We can be specific and logical in our communication and only include necessary information. Make sure whatever we need to say can be completed as quickly as possible. Including too much detail will result in “teflon stage” (everything we say will slide right off).

Some people are more reserved in their approach and appreciate things moving at a more moderate pace. They tend not to be super animated and appear more low key. They would be considered leading with an “S” style. If this is the case, we can try to determine if they are more oriented towards tasks or people. If we notice they are drawn to personal relationships, they will appreciate a more subdued approach. We should avoid being forceful and as much as possible, allow time for processing. Advanced notice of changes and supplying the “why” to changes goes a long way with getting them onboard.

Lastly, we can pick up on someone being more reserved and very focused on task success. These people tend to “think to speak” and are often quieter and more analytical. DISC, would identify them as having a high “C” style. If we have someone who fits this description on our team, we would be wise to include as many details as possible to ensure they can be successful in a task. Allowing time for clarifying questions and watching for possible, “analysis paralysis” would help nudge them forward or identify what missing piece of information is necessary to help them move forward.


Ever changing situations and personal individuality make it impossible to have a “one size fits all” approach to communication. As successful leaders, we are constantly focusing on the outward impact of our communication and recalibrating. We can be in tune with the constant feedback that is available to us when communicating and look for signs that recalibration is in order. It may be as subtle as a facial expression or as huge as a project disaster. Any time we sense that there is miscommunication, we can stop and adjust. As many times as it takes.

If you interested in learning more about leveraging DISC styles on your team to enhance communication or increase effectiveness, contact me at

I'm Karen Palmer and I am a Talent Development Consultant focused on human dynamics in the workplace. I specialize in developing leaders and optimizing team dynamics. With research proven assessments and reports, I create opportunities for improvement through self-awareness, understanding of others and intentional interaction.

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