The Art of Leading a Department: Communicate Clearly and Effectively

Assumptions are the termites of relationships.

Henry Winkler

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series.

My Chaotic Mind

Allow me to let you a little bit into my world. I am not being boastful to say that I am interested in pretty much anything. I like to know how the world works, and why it has panned out in the environment we live in. For example at this present time I’m reading a book on Information Theory (by James Gleick, an excellent writer making esoteric ideas understood by the few accessible to the many). At the same time I’m spending time listening to a podcast series by Dan Carlin called ‘Hardcore History’, the last of which was on the Mongol Empire. This weekend whilst discussing the importance of marking with a colleague I was able to relate the concept to the work of behavioral economist Dan Airely’s study on motivation in the workplace.

Last night I watched a catch-up of Mastermind, two of topics being Pink Floyd and Theodore Roosevelt in which I either met or beat the contestants’ score (I know little of Deep Space 9 or James Herbert) and the proceeded to lay waste to the general knowledge rounds. My wife begs me to try to get onto a quiz show – particularly The Chase or Tipping Point, because you know, MONEY – but my efforts so far have failed (I guess they don’t like my application).

The Downside

However this is not necessarily a good thing. Since I have all of this factual knowledge buzzing around in my brain it is particularly hard to piece it all into something useful. I’ll be honest, if someone – anyone, even my wife – has a conversation with me unless I’m fully aware of the importance of the matter then I’m likely only to be 80% (at most) listening.

It’s not that I don’t care – it’s just my brain has this overwhelming amount of stuff that it has to process, and as such this means that at times it can’t dedicate 100% of its resources to the task in hand – especially if I have to remember things.

Hence, a lot of my communication is text-based, either e-mail, iMessage, SMS, Twitter, whatever, simply because I need a record of what I’ve said or been asked. I find this particularly effective; in fact over the next few months I’m going to use Evernote as my ‘bin’ of communication so that I can aggregate, sort, process and act on everything that goes through me. I need a second brain, basically.

The Trifecta of Communication

I feel I am an extreme case. My wife remembers everything she says to me – date, time, location, emotion, what I was wearing/eating/doing, everything about the situation involving her talking to me. We are a classic example of opposites attract! However because of this, I have learned that in order to communicate effectively, one of the first things to appreciate is a three-fold medium of communication works particularly well:

  • E-mail – so there is a unamibiguous record of communication.
  • Face-to-face – so you’ve taken time to work individually and discuss points (also it makes a person feel valued; e-mail is quite alienating).
  • As a group – so there’s a collective understanding and a forum for debate.

I try to ensure that any action I take or decision I make that needs to be shared with my team is first of all communicated via e-mail, secondly face-to-face, then thirdly as a group. This is the complete method; at times I might not do one of the three, but then this lessens the chance of a message getting across. Also by doing all three I’m making sure that those who are less IT savvy don’t lose out, and that those who don’t function well in groups get their own chance to put views across.


Early in my leadership career it became very apparent that how I communicated was often left to interpretation – sometimes, even my my own hands. I recall one member of staff imploring me to write everything I said down in a ‘decision book’ because I’d keep tweaking things or shifting the goal posts. This wasn’t intentional on my part; I was still learning and not quite confident enough in my own ways. We all suffer from the angel and devil on our shoulders and quite often it’s difficult to know which way to go, resulting in decision that you didn’t want, or wasn’t quite effective, and then you change your mind on things. It’s through faith in your convictions that this can be prevented.

With this in mind it is crucial that clarity is central.

  • Don’t flower things up – the message gets lost.
  • Be specific with time-based actions – give dates.
  • Use unambiguous language – if you’re happy, you’re happy, if you’re not, you’re not.
  • Is what you’ve said open for debate? Say so. Otherwise, it’s a Moses and the Ten Commandments job and your staff will have to suck it up. Harsh, but real.
  • Who does your communication effect – does everyone need to know?
  • I read somewhere that it is useful to state any action required at the top of an email or before elaborating, so that it has greater impact.
  • Never assume a message is understood!
  • Finally, appreciate that, like me, some of your team are not 100% in the moment – so if a message or required action is important than make this clear.

Notice how many of these points are akin to how we’re expected to communicate with students. I’m not saying patronise your staff by treating them like students – it’s one of the greatest failings of many leaders that they act this way – instead I am saying that great communication is effective at any level.


Communication can be carried out in many different ways – but the three ways that seem to work well in departments are e-mail, face-to-face conversation and group discussion. Each underpin each other and thus add strength to whatever is being communicated. Clarity is vitally important, especially where actions are required. Allow your staff time to take the message on board and check that it is understood, because, as I keep saying, not everyone (including me) is listening 100%. And like me this is not an intentional action, but a result of who they are and what they do!


About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
This entry was posted in The Art of Leading a Department and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Art of Leading a Department: Communicate Clearly and Effectively

  1. Pingback: The Art of Leading a Department: Listening to Those Above and Below | Teaching at the edge of chaos

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