Why Most Leaders Can’t Connect and Engage

I’ve seen it practically everywhere I’ve worked or consulted over the decades: senior executives who simply can’t connect with employees. It comes up again and again wherever I go. To make matters worse, popular rhetoric in leadership circles amounts to little more than feel good fluff and fad-like hyperbole.

Let me start by saying this is not a generational thing. This issue was around before we got here and it’ll be around after we’re gone. It’s not about the shift away from command and control style leadership. It’s got nothing to do with emotional intelligence (EI) or employee engagement. And it doesn’t matter if you’re introverted or extraverted.

Simply put, there is no silver bullet or leadership fad that will cure this problem. But if you really want to understand why top executives and business leaders so often fail to connect with the rank and file, these are the most common reasons. Come to think of it, some of them are relevant to politicians, activists, and religious leaders as well.

They’re not truthful or trustworthy. Let’s not ignore the most obvious answer. Nothing creates communication gaps between leaders and their constituents or stakeholders more effectively than dishonesty and its resulting lack of trust. If you keep BSing people, you’ll lose credibility and, well, that’s the end of that.

They have overinflated egos. Saturday Night Live has been doing those “You think you’re better than me?” skits forever. Just as there are people with inferiority complexes and enormous chips on their shoulder, there are those who overcompensate by puffing up their egos and acting like big shots. That creates an incredibly common gap between c-level executives and employees. 

They’re stuck in their ivory towers. There’s an old saying, “it’s lonely at the top.” Physical isolation takes its toll on top executives. That’s the beauty of a simple concept like “management by walking around.” Funny thing is, I’ve known several CEOs who thought they were men of the people when, in reality, they couldn’t have been more isolated. It’s interesting how deluded some CEOs can become … when they isolate themselves.

They’re different animals. Lots of executives I’ve known – some famous ones, as well – are so ingrained in the way they think and behave that they simply come across as entirely different animals to some segment of their people, and vice versa. For example, some geeks have trouble relating to employees in nontechnical functions, a common problem in the tech industry.

They’re lousy communicators. Popular wisdom says today’s business leaders have to be great communicators. What a load of nonsense. They should be, but they’re not because it’s probably not even in the top five criteria for climbing the corporate ladder. Of course, they can listen and learn, but that’s where the next couple of issues come in.

It’s low on their priority list. Look, executives are there to do a job, and no matter what everyone says in public or writes in books, if you look at a CEO’s real priority list, it’ll be all about developing and marketing great products, customer engagement, growing revenues and profits, keeping cash in the bank, corporate strategies and the like. If there’s an employee engagement metric, it’s usually just lip service.

They don’t see the ROI. I recently wrote about why the vast majority of top executives don’t use any kind of social media. The main reason is that their time is precious and they simply don’t see the return on investment. Like it or not, that’s the real reason why communication ends up low down on their priority list.

They’re afraid to connect. As one very wise shrink once told me, the impact that our response to fear has on human behavior is mindboggling. You can’t simply load people into convenient little buckets labeled “introvert” or “extravert,” either. Many in the latter category are just using a facade to isolate themselves from perceived threats. More leaders are afraid to connect than you can imagine. That may be why they were driven to lead to begin with – to be above the fray.

They’re not genuine. The words “genuine” and “authentic” have been hijacked by popular leadership dogma to mean high emotional quotient or EQ. Unfortunately, psychopaths and narcissists score as high on those ridiculous tests as those with genuine self-awareness because they’re adept at compartmentalizing their emotions and manipulating those of others.

I just wanted to make that distinction to highlight the dark side of emotional intelligence. So when you hear some self-proclaimed leadership guru talk about EI or EQ as if it’s the leadership holy grail, you might want to listen with a healthy amount of skepticism. There are loads of reasons why leaders fail to connect and there’s no convenient one-size-fits-all fix.