Leaders Should Communicate Less, Not More

“Few things under heaven are as instructive as the lessons of Silence.” – Lao Tzu

Tim Armstrong has got to be getting a little tired of having to apologize after nearly every meeting with AOL employees. We all shoot ourselves in the foot from time to time, but you wouldn’t think the CEO of a public company would do it very often.

Well, think again.

On a call with employees last week, Armstrong explained how the company’s rising healthcare costs were in part due to million dollar payouts made for two employees that had distressed babies. And this bizarre reference was somehow meant to explain why the company had to change its 401K plan.

I’ve got a little tip for the communication genius who thought that was a good idea: Someday you’ll find your ideal profession. Keep looking. And if it was Armstrong’s idea, he should maybe read Lao Tzu’s Tao Teh Ching, especially the parts about the benefits of keeping your big mouth shut (my admittedly crude translation).

Not to pick on Armstrong, but this does seem to happen to him a lot. Last year, while chewing out a thousand or so employees of the company’s troubled Patch unit on an all-hands conference call, he stopped mid-sentence and fired an employee. Just like that, he said, “Abel, put that camera down right now! Abel, you’re fired. Out!”

Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens a lot more often than you’d think, and certainly not just at AOL.

Last week, PayPal president David Marcus scolded employees of the eBay unit’s San Jose headquarters for not installing PayPal’s mobile payment app, forgetting their passwords, and not hacking into Coke machines that don’t accept PayPal. His message to those employees was more or less: Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

Now, I’ve read an awful lot of flame email over the years – written a few myself, I have to admit – but I have to tell you, that was one of the most trivial and demotivating diatribes I’ve read in some time.

Whenever this sort of thing happens, every self-proclaimed leadership and communication guru on planet Earth comes out of the woodwork with their 20-20 hindsight lessons on how executives should be more effective communicators and crisis managers in an era where anything juicy gets recorded, leaked, posted, and tweeted.

But here’s the thing. Those are the same experts who sold corporate America on the whole idea that communication is the most critical leadership skill, that it’s the best thing since Homo Sapiens evolved lips, and there is no such thing as too much communication.

Therein, lies the rub.

Let me muster up all my years of executive communication training and say this as eloquently and diplomatically as I can. With all due respect, those experts are wrong.

This isn’t about executives needing to communicate more often, more effectively, or more sensitively. This is about CEOs communicating too much because their communications people tell them to. And they’re flat out wrong. The now ubiquitous all-hands meetings, town-hall meetings, and all-employee emails are not the best way to communicate with and motivate employees.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: CEOs have been saying and doing dumb things that do more harm than good since the beginning of time. That’s because they have a lot going on and, for the most part, they’re far better at running the show than they are at putting on a show.

Sure, top executives may give lip service to the idea that they need to communicate and do so effectively, but it’s simply not their highest priority. So, things don’t come out the way they should, feet end up in mouths, and the next thing you know, it’s crisis management time.

Granted, we now have smartphones, social media, a 24/7 news cycle, and an insatiable appetite for train wrecks. But all that means is the public now gets to hear and see all the dumb things CEOs say and do when they bend over backwards desperately trying to explain every little decision they make.

The modern day movement for top executives to over-communicate is way overblown.  Don’t just believe me. Lao Tzu says it loud and clear:

“The wise leader speaks rarely and briefly. After all, no other natural outpouring goes on and on. It rains and then it stops. It thunders and then it stops...The leader teaches more through being than through doing. The quality of one’s silence conveys more than long speeches.”

The point is simple. Instead of learning to be better communicators, leaders should learn to be better leaders. Instead of all-hands meetings and company-wide memos, leaders should create a culture where communication occurs in more natural and organic ways.

What that means is CEOs should communicate openly and frequently with their staffs. Likewise, those executives should speak candidly and often with their direct reports, and so on. Sure, there are times when a CEO or some other top executive should speak with the troops, but those times should be rare.

When it comes to communication, as with so many things in business, less is usually more.