What makes a good communications leader—and how can leaders better serve their organizations?
The Plank Center at the University of Alabama has made it its mission to identify great leadership traits among PR professionals and gauge the industry’s performance over time. Its latest report card gives leaders a passing grade but reveals not much has changed regarding the field’s biggest problems.
Dr. Bruce Berger, co-investigator of this study and professor emeritus at the University of Alabama, says the findings were surprising, given that so much is known about leaders’ shortcomings. Why hasn’t progress been made on problems we’ve known about for years?
Berger explains that this report card came about after the Plank Center developed a survey to measure communications leaders in 2012. Researchers for that report talked to 4,500 pros in 23 countries to test a leadership model that underpins the center’s research.
The report card measures:
- How are leaders performing?
- To what extent are they engaged?
- What are the levels of trust in the organization?
- How satisfied are employees in their work?
- What is the quality of culture in your organization?
This latest report card reveals that many see PR leadership as mediocre, with plenty of room for improvement.
The biggest overall take, I think for me—and I’ve worked on all three of these studies—is that over five years I anticipated seeing at least some slight or modest improvement in particular areas in the study, and what has happened, in fact, is kind of the reverse of that. As much change as we have in the world today—and we talk about change management, disruptive change and the need for organizations to be flexible and agile and adaptable—there seems to be … this unchanging, average quality of leadership.
For the research team, a new question emerges after three consecutive reports of mediocre leadership: Are communications leaders interested in improving?
The leader/employee gap
Leaders and their teams have different valuations when it comes to their engagement. Leaders, when asked about their performance, grade themselves at an A-minus, but their employees and team members give them a C-plus.
That’s a significant gap, according to Berger and his colleagues.
“The fact that there’s a difference isn’t a surprise,” he admits. “Most everyone in any type of role will evaluate a rate themselves a little bit higher than others around them would.” However, he argues that the disparity between A-minus and C-plus should give leaders pause.
“How leaders think they’re performing differs pretty significantly from people just one, two or three levels below them,” he says.
What’s driving the gap?
Here Berger gets a little speculative, because the data is more qualitative than quantitative, but he’s willing to generalize based on his conversations with practitioners.
“Some leaders I know, tremendous leaders, are highly self-reflective,” he explains. “They think consciously about their interactions with the people who work for them and how they come across as a leader. Other leaders I know don’t have an ounce of self-reflection, and they don’t really care how others might see them.”
Another aspect of leadership that can drive dissatisfaction is the unwillingness to share power or listen to input.
“Increasingly people want to have some role in decision-making,” says Berger. “They want to be involved in discussions and help to achieve decisions. Some leaders are very conscientious … about doing that, and others aren’t. They don’t really get most of the people involved; they hear information, and they make a decision.”
Good leaders listen
When looking at what makes a good leader, Berger points to the decades of research into how employees feel unheard and underappreciated.
“Fifty years ago, in one of the largest databases about employee communications surveys, the two biggest complaints that employees had about their bosses were: ‘My boss never says thank you … and he never says hello,’” Berger says.
If we are still dealing with the same issues 50 years later, that suggests an intractable problem.
“In our world today, listening and empathy, I think, are probably increasing in importance,” he says.
The speed of change
Why haven’t job satisfaction rates and corporate culture grades improved?
Again, Berger can only speculate, given that the report measures only sentiment and not its causes, but he hazards a guess that the hectic rate of change and urgency of today’s workflow are draining today’s communicators.
“We can’t ignore the incredible factor of speed in our world today,” he says. “The press of work to get things done, that impacts all of us on the job … that work overload drives dissatisfaction in a number of areas, and it may drive dissatisfaction toward a boss.”
However, Berger isn’t ready to let leaders off the hook by pointing to structural problems that hinder better communication.
“My own sense is that two-way communication is much more something that an individual controls,” he says. “Your leader or your boss is going to make time to do that, or he or she isn’t, for a variety of reasons.”
A top reason for avoiding engaging with employees is the lack of time.
“What I often hear is there’s just too much going on,” says Berger, quoting respondents who might say “I don’t have time to meet with my people as much as I would like to or possibly as I need to,” or “I have too many responsibilities.”
If everyone is pressed for time, what can leaders do to get better at leading their teams?
Humility as a virtue
Berger returns again and again to a leader’s self-reflection as an indicator of their overall success.
As an example, he points to a study he worked on with a colleague that analyzed self-reflection among U.S. and Russian PR leaders. In both samples, the biggest barrier to self-analysis and becoming a better leader was ego.
“Ego is what gets in the way,” says Berger. “There are some leaders who do not want to hear complaints and do not want to hear criticism.” The second-most-common barrier to self-reflection was time.
However, he stresses that a leader must decide to change. “It’s really up to us as individuals—and some people will do that, and some just don’t,” he says.
Gender trust gap
The other big finding in the 2019 Report Card is how the gender gap widened in every category from 2017 to 2019.
The report writes:
Women’s perceptions of shared power in decision-making, two-way communication, and the valuing of their opinions differed significantly as reflected in trust in the organization, culture and engagement issues. Women said they want more involvement in strategic decision-making, they want their opinions to count for more, and they want a communication system that places greater emphasis on two-way communication.
Why aren’t the scores improving? Again, Berger cites the difficulty in transitioning from recognizing you have a problem to doing something about it.
To understand this dichotomy, Berger recommends reading the “The Knowing-Doing Gap” as a text to help communicators initiate structural changes.
“It’s up to us,” Berger says. “It’s something that we’re well aware of, increasingly aware of, and it hasn’t gone away. There just aren’t enough of us doing anything about it.”
How are you working to become a better PR leader or help transform your organization’s culture? Share your thoughts in the comments.