illustration of two leaders, each holding a tin can up to one ear, one leader talking into their can with the other leader listening into their can, and in the middle of the cans is a jumbling of wires connecting both cans to show that this blog gives tips for improving communication in the workplace (as workplace communication can be difficult to get right)


5 Ways Leaders Can Improve Communication in the Workplace

Discover a framework for improving communication in the workplace, including the five Key Principles leaders need for effective conversations.

Publish Date: December 6, 2023

Read Time: 6 min

Author: Stephanie Scherle

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According to DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2023, when leaders believe their company’s leaders have ineffective interpersonal skills, they are 3.5X more likely to say they want to leave within a year. This research shows how important effective communication is in retaining talented employees. It also builds a strong case for developing leaders’ communication skills. In this blog, we’ll review what ineffective communication can look like and offer a framework for improving communication in the workplace.

Communication in the Workplace Gone Wrong

In the bustling offices of a tech startup, Alex, a talented software developer, was dedicated to and passionate about creating innovative solutions for the company.

However, communication between Alex and their manager, Kim, was strained. The trouble began when the team was assigned a high-stakes project with tight deadlines. Kim, although well-intentioned, could be a micromanager. She often communicated her expectations in a way that left little room for clarification.

As the project moved forward, Kim’s instructions became increasingly unclear, causing frustration for Alex. Attempting to seek clarification, Alex scheduled several one-on-one meetings with Kim. But these encounters only seemed to worsen the issue. Kim, overwhelmed by her work, dismissed Alex's concerns hastily, leaving them feeling unheard and undervalued.

The breaking point happened during a crucial project meeting. Kim criticized Alex's work in front of the entire team without providing constructive feedback or acknowledging their efforts. This public reprimand not only humiliated Alex but also showed a lack of trust.

Feeling alienated and disheartened, Alex decided it was time to leave the company. The poor communication and the perceived lack of support from leadership became too much. Alex resigned, leaving a void in the team that could have been avoided with effective and empathetic communication.

Why Is Effective Workplace Communication Important?

In any work arrangement, whether virtual, in person, or hybrid, effective communication is the cornerstone of success. It builds trust, fosters employee engagement, reduces conflict, streamlines collaboration, and enhances productivity. Managers who share work expectations upfront minimize confusion and frustrating miscommunications.

This is especially key in virtual environments, where managers cannot rely on nonverbal cues, such as body language, facial expressions, and tone to the same extent as they can in person.

5 Ways to Help Your Leaders Improve Workplace Communication

HR and L&D professionals can equip leaders with the skills to cultivate a culture of effective, open workplace communication.

DDI’s 5 Key Principles for effective interactions are an evidence-based framework to set leaders up for success. For this reason, they should be the foundation of every successful communication strategy.

What Are DDI’s 5 Key Principles for Effective Communication?

DDI’s Key Principles serve as a powerful framework, shaping an organizational culture of respect, inclusivity, and empathy. They go beyond individual actions, collectively creating a psychologically safe work environment.

When leaders use Key Principles, they cultivate a safe, collaborative, respectful, and trusting workplace for employees to do their best and grow. To be strong workplace communicators and drive a positive company culture, leaders should:

  • Maintain and enhance self-esteem.
  • Actively listen and respond with empathy.
  • Ask for help and encourage involvement.
  • Build trust by sharing thoughts, feelings, and rationale.
  • Build ownership by providing support without removing responsibility.

1. Maintain or Enhance Self-Esteem

When employees feel respected and valued, they also tend to be more motivated and committed to their work. High self-esteem makes employees more likely to share responsibility, confront challenges, adapt to change, and offer new solutions. While it’s critical to maintain a team member’s self-esteem if they are struggling with low performance, it’s also essential to enhance self-esteem by recognizing great work.

Example #1: Maintain Self-Esteem in a Low-Performance Conversation

Leaders should consider the right time and setting for conversations about low performance. Make sure there is enough time to fully discuss the challenge and next steps in a setting that is neutral and comfortable. Start by acknowledging the employee’s strengths and contributions and highlight specific examples where the employee’s work has positively impacted the team:

“Sam, I appreciate your dedication and the effort you’ve put into our recent project. Your attention to detail and creativity have been valuable to the team.”

Next, it is important to share observations in a non-confrontational way. Use specific examples to illustrate concerns, focusing on behaviors rather than personal attributes:

I've noticed some project deadlines are not being met, and the quality of your work seems to have decreased. I want to understand if there are any challenges you're facing."

Leaders should involve the employee by asking for their perspective. This fosters a sense of ownership and encourages open communication.

“I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on what might be causing these challenges. Is anything hindering your ability to meet deadlines or produce your best work?”

Leaders shouldn’t forget to offer support and resources to help the employee:

"I want to help you overcome any obstacles. Do you need resources or additional assistance? Let's work together to find solutions that can help you regain your usual level of performance."

Then, conclude by reaffirming the employee’s value and express confidence in their ability to improve:

"Sam, your contributions are essential, and I believe in your ability to overcome these challenges. Let's work together to ensure you have what you need to succeed."

Example #2: Enhance Self-Esteem in a Recognition Conversation

While many leaders realize the importance of having conversations with their employees about low performance, conversations to recognize good work are often overlooked. However, these types of conversations are equally important.

Similar to a low-performance conversation, the right time and setting are important for a recognition conversation to ensure privacy and focus. Begin the conversation by highlighting specific achievements and behaviors that have contributed to the team’s success:

"Emily, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge your outstanding performance recently. Your dedication to detail and your ability to meet tight deadlines on the last project were truly commendable."

Leaders should also connect the employee’s contributions to the broader goals and success of the team or company:

“Your attention to detail not only ensured quality but also played a major role in meeting our project milestones, which is crucial for our team’s overall success.”

Additionally, it is important to express appreciation for the employee’s unique qualities and contributions to ensure they are aware that their efforts are valued:

"I appreciate your commitment to excellence. Your work ethic and positive attitude create a motivating atmosphere within the team."

Lastly, leaders should encourage employees to continue their exceptional work and express confidence in their ability to make ongoing positive contributions:

"I want to encourage you to keep up the fantastic work. Your contributions are integral to our team's success, and I have no doubt that you'll continue to excel."

By recognizing an employee’s achievements, leaders reinforce a culture of appreciation within their team, which can motivate and build commitment for continued excellence.

2. Listen and Respond with Empathy

Being a good listener is a key leadership skill. It requires a combination of empathy, patience, and active engagement. As a skilled listener, leaders must be aware of verbal and nonverbal cues, creating an environment where individuals feel heard and valued.

In other words, the leader needs to use their emotional intelligence (EQ). When an employee expresses their emotions, a leader with great listening skills and high EQ hears the words and recognizes underlying sentiments. Communicating in a way that acknowledges emotions and demonstrates understanding helps leaders build strong interpersonal bonds. It also empowers them to address concerns effectively. This builds trust, understanding, and collaboration.

There is one catch, though. The complexity of emotions makes it almost impossible to always get it right. You might think you know what someone is feeling based on the situation and your interpretation of their verbal communication, but that might not be what is happening for them at all. That’s why, after expressing empathy, it’s crucial to pause and allow the employee to correct or clarify their emotions.

In face-to-face interactions, attention to nonverbal cues—such as facial expressions, tone, and body language—also offers valuable insights. Using tools like the empathy formula provides a structured approach to expressing empathy. It helps you get a deeper understanding of the emotional landscape within a conversation.

The empathy formula works like this:

“It sounds like you’re [feeling] because/about [fact].”

It doesn’t need to be said exactly like this. Every leader should find their unique style to using the empathy formula. Whatever way you use the empathy formula, the goal is to gain a clear understanding of how the employee feels and what is causing them to feel this way.

3. Ask for Help and Encourage Involvement

Encouraging involvement and seeking input from employees is a powerful way to unlock a team’s full potential. By actively seeking their thoughts and opinions, leaders not only harness the collective intelligence within the group but also instill a sense of ownership and commitment.

When people feel that their ideas contribute to the overall vision and goals, they become more invested in the success of the projects they undertake. The key lies in unleashing these ideas through thoughtful and open-ended questions. The most effective ones begin with "what," "how," "why," or "who." Questions structured this way prompt team members to share insights, suggestions, and new solutions.

Some examples:

  • “What approach do you think would be most effective for tackling this project's challenges?”
  • “How would you implement this new initiative to maximize its impact?”
  • “Why do you believe this could be improved, and what suggestions do you have to make it better?”
  • “Who do you think would be the best collaborator, and why?”
  • “How could we enhance our communication to ensure everyone's voices are heard and ideas are shared?”
  • “Why is this goal important to you, and what ideas do you have for achieving it?”

This inclusive approach creates a collaborative environment. It also ensures that ideas originate from those who will be integral to their execution, building commitment and increasing the likelihood of success.

4. Build Trust by Sharing Thoughts, Feelings, and Rationale

Building trust within a team is a nuanced process that involves transparency and vulnerability. A proven strategy for establishing trust is being willing to disclose your thoughts, feelings, and rationale, even when it might be challenging.

Leaders who offer the "whys" behind their decisions and ideas create a foundation of understanding. This honesty, even in difficult situations, creates authenticity and openness. By allowing team members to see their thought processes, leaders demonstrate a level of vulnerability that strengthens their leadership. This authenticity resonates with employees, making them more likely to share their perspectives and concerns.

In creating a culture of open communication, leaders build trust and lay the groundwork for collaborative problem solving and shared success.

This could sound something like:

“I heard that you are worried about the new business strategy. To be honest, I was worried too until I understood the reasons. Let me share them with you.”


“I can see that you are frustrated that I delegated this work to someone else. Let me explain why I made this decision.”

By openly sharing their thoughts and feelings, leaders create an environment of trust and collaboration.

5. Build Ownership by Providing Support

Delegation is a skill that many leaders struggle with. It can be tempting to step in and take charge of a task or assignment when challenges arise. Sometimes, leaders believe they can expedite the process because they have more experience than their team members. However, this approach can inadvertently diminish the confidence of their team members.

A more effective strategy is to offer support for success while keeping the responsibility with the individuals involved. This approach not only creates a sense of ownership for the assignment but also contributes to their professional development. Leaders can provide support by offering guidance, resources, and mentorship. Regular check-ins and open communication ensure that team members feel supported while retaining their responsibilities. It is also important that leaders express confidence in their team members’ ability to take ownership.

This could sound like:

“I know you will be able to figure out a solution. If you need me to be a sounding board for your ideas, we can schedule a meeting.”

“I’m confident that you will do a great job finishing this sales pitch. If you need any data to support your case, I can put you in touch with the right person.”

This approach builds a collaborative and empowering environment, encouraging the growth and autonomy of team members.

In Conclusion:

Putting It All Together

In conclusion, the significance of effective workplace communication cannot be overstated. It shapes the experience of every employee and can make the difference between engaged versus disengaged team members. Clear and open communication builds a foundation of trust, collaboration, and understanding, fostering a positive work environment.

Improving communication in the workplace can be a catalyst for growth and success at the individual, team, and company-wide levels. The ability to convey thoughts and listen actively creates a culture of openness that propels individual and collective achievement. Importantly, the impact of strong communication extends beyond the professional realm; leaders who master emotional intelligence and communication skills often find success in their personal lives, building relationships with empathy and clarity.

As we navigate the challenges of the workplace today, let effective communication serve as the base for a thriving, interconnected, and successful professional journey.

Want to learn more? Read our blog on how leaders can build trust: 7 Ways the Best Leaders Build Trust in the Workplace

Stephanie Scherle is a consulting associate at DDI. When she is not supporting clients to get the best out of DDI’s solutions, you’ll most likely find her scouting out the newest additions to London’s restaurant scene, as she is extremely passionate about good food.