Why context is everything for leadership communication

Emergency exitBefore a leader is interviewed on camera it’s always wise to have a look at what is physically going on behind them, to ensure that it is does not conflict with the message they wish to convey.

For example, a leader who is fighting off rumours that they are about to leave the company, in the middle of a crisis, should not be filmed in front of an emergency exit sign as in the one pictured above.

This media training advice is probably as old as television itself but interestingly, it applies as much to the internal communications environment as it does the external media environment. This is because we are talking about context and being aware of your surroundings.

When anyone communicates but gives no thought to the communications context, they are a hostage to fortune, and anything can go wrong. When this happens to leaders of large companies, the negative impact on communication and business is greatly multiplied, given the key role they perform within their organisations.

Do your leaders take the temperature of the organisation before deciding what to say or write within your company? Do they find out what people are saying at different levels of the organisation and on the shop floor? Are they aware of the wider communications context?

Leaders have got to be aware of their ‘surroundings’. Communication isn’t a simple matter of delivery, to the exclusion of everything else. It’s more complex than opening one’s mouth and speaking, or pressing ‘send’ on an email.

Leaders have to listen to know and understand the communications context and how that will have a bearing on their message. The meaning of your message is, after all, shaped by other events that have, are currently, or are yet to take place. The timing of your messaging is also therefore important.

The interpretation of your message within a large organisation is also affected by the local context. In each local office staff will exchange stories and come to form commonly accepted beliefs. If your leaders don’t know or understand what those stories are, or wilfully choose to ignore them, the interpretation of their message is left purely to chance.

So what have we learned? Leaders must be aware of their surroundings, both in a physical and organisational sense. They must have regard for context and know what the backstory is within their company. Being aware of these simple things helps leaders increase their chances of communications success, and helps to avoid an otherwise embarrassing situation.

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