Helping leaders to communicate – a steer from behavioural science

Do your leaders communicate well? If you’re looking for advice and guidance to help them, you’re in the right place.

The recent State of the Sector survey results revealed a third (35%) of respondents said people managers were the primary communication channel for many of their employees; a figure that rises to 45% in organisations where more than half of the workers are deskless.

Does that ring true for your organisation?

How can we help our line managers and leaders communicate well?

I invited Sue Dewhurst and Liam FitzPatrick to write for the All Things IC blog to share their thoughts on this topic.

Sue spent over 25 years working in internal communication and is best known for her work as a trainer and coach. Her models and frameworks are used in organisations worldwide.

Liam is experienced in change management, PR and internal communications in-house and for major consultancies. He lectures on developing teams, research, and planning, and has served as an external examiner at UK universities.

The second edition of their popular book Successful Employee Communications: A Practitioners’ Guide to Tools, Models and Best Practice for Internal Communication has just been published.

I was delighted to contribute an expert piece to the book and value Sue and Liam’s expertise and knowledge. See the end of this article to discover how you can save 20% off this or any other Kogan Page book.

I’ll hand you over to Sue…

Sue Dewhurst and Liam FitzPatrick

Helping leaders to communicate – a steer from behavioural science

At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, you probably found leaders in your organisation were hanging on your every word. All communication seized upon; all help gratefully received.

But if you’re now starting to find attention and enthusiasm on the wane, how do you rekindle leaders’ interest in communication? And how can you help line managers to build their skills?

As so often in the world of communication, it’s tempting to jump straight to tactics – perhaps toolkits on the Intranet, lists of hints and tips, even commissioning a training course.

But not so fast!

The key is to start by understanding the behaviours you want to change and the barriers that might be standing in the way of great leadership communication.

I’m all for frameworks that help structure our thinking. In this case, you might try the COM-B model. B is for behaviours, whilst capability, opportunity and motivation are three types of influence that can help or hinder those behaviours to happen.

Let’s look at how you might use the framework to help leaders with communication.

First, focus on communication behaviours. What are managers doing, or not doing, today? What would you like them to do more of, less of or differently in the future? Instead of thinking at a general level about ‘communicating effectively’, identify specific behaviours and prioritise the ones you’d like to focus on.

But don’t do it at your desk – get out and about in your organisation. Talk to managers. Chat with their teams. Watch and listen to leaders communicating.

Have a good look around their work environment and get familiar with their working day. Ask yourself:

  • What’s working well? What are managers already doing that you can recognise and build on? For example, are they holding regular team meetings and one-to-ones? Did the pandemic help them understand the importance of checking in to see how team members are doing?
  • What would you hope to see more of? What’s missing? Perhaps you’ve seen leaders struggling to deal with tough questions or you’ve noticed missed opportunities to share a good personal story. Maybe they’re great at sharing information but could ideally ask more questions and spend more time listening.
  • Are there particular pockets of the organisation where ideal communication behaviours are happening? Are there specific times or circumstances where those behaviours are missing or the opposite happens? What patterns do you see?

Once you’ve identified and prioritised the communication behaviours you’d like to see more of, use what you’ve seen and heard to understand what might drive those behaviours.

The COM of COM-B gives you three categories of influence to look for:

  • Capability: Are managers physically and psychologically able to carry out these behaviours? For example, do they know how to tell a story? Can they inject energy into sessions over Zoom or Teams? Do they have the skills to ask open questions in a way that can open up a discussion or help understand someone’s reasoning? Do they understand enough about key business issues to explain them to someone else?
  • Opportunity: Does the physical and social environment help or hinder these behaviours? For instance, do managers themselves have opportunities to understand and debate the business issues they should explain to others? Does their work environment allow them time and space to hold team meetings and one to ones? How do leaders above them communicate – what role models are they seeing?
  • Motivation: What are managers’ attitudes and beliefs about communication and what’s underlying them? For instance, if they see much of it as irrelevant corporate blah blah, why might that be? If it’s at the bottom of their priority list, what’s driving that?

COM-B is a diagnostic tool. It invites you to be clear about what you want to change, by identifying specific behaviours. Then it helps you to understand more about how to change those behaviours, by understanding what might be driving people’s behaviours today. Importantly, it asks you not to make assumptions but to invest time watching, listening and learning.

Maybe you’ve been assuming managers weren’t interested in communication, but actually your analysis of their motivation shows they’re all for it – it’s the opportunity and capability parts that need addressing.

The COM-B framework might not present you with easy answers.

The opportunity category of influence can be a particularly tricky one to work with because it will often be outside your control – in tightly-controlled working environments where there is no space in the working day allowed for communication, no amount of toolkits or training will address the real issue.

But it will help you recognise what you’re dealing with and point you in the direction of where to find solutions. And the more you understand your leaders’ worlds – their interests, frustrations, challenges, practical constraints – the more likely they are to be open to what you have to say. And the more relevant and helpful your eventual solutions will be.

Thank you Sue.

Sue and Liam’s book Successful Employee Communications: A Practitioners’ Guide to Tools, Models and Best Practice for Internal Communication is out now.

It includes a whole chapter on leadership, including how to help leaders add the most value, how to invest time and energy in leadership communication and building leaders’ communication competence.

Successful Employee Communications book by Liam FitzPatrick and Sue Dewhurst

“More than ever, people expect to understand where they add value to an organisation and be credited for the value they bring. This second edition superbly blends theory, practice and many expert case studies in a highly practical way. Its very readable style from two battle-worn, time-served, highly experienced practitioners again makes it an excellent practitioners’ handbook.” ― Russell Grossman, Head of UK Government Internal Communications Profession.

You can save 20% off this or any other Kogan Page book via their website. Use the code ALLTHINGSIC20.

Read more about behavioural science

Read more about leadership communication via the All Things IC blog

Thank you for stopping by,


First published on the All Things IC blog 10 May 2022.



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