Communication Skills Serve Commanders, Their Troops

Communication Skills Serve Commanders, Their Troops

Friday, July 1, 2022

Leaders frequently struggle with communication. In fact, command climate surveys identify communication as one of the top challenges within Army organizations. Why does this happen? What is it about communication that is so difficult? Why do leaders think their subordinates are not understanding them, and why do subordinates think their leaders are poor communicators?

Leadership is how we communicate with each other, and language is our tool for communication. Unfortunately, the perception of good communication is in the ear of the beholder.

Culprits Behind Failures

Mission Command is the Army’s philosophy of how leaders command and control Army units, and it comprises seven interdependent principles. Two of the principles, shared understanding (understanding information from the highest to the lowest possible level) and commander’s intent (a concise expression of what the commander intends to achieve), are directly related to communication and are often the culprits of communication failures.

For Mission Command to happen as the Army intends, commanders must clearly share their intent and work to establish a shared understanding of that intent within their units. The process is so simple that many leaders overlook the complexities associated with using language to communicate, and sabotage the development of a shared understanding without knowing it. This problem is not new. Social scientists have studied communication for many years and have developed many theories of how communication works.  

One of the most interesting communication theories is related to the concepts of locutionary force versus illocutionary force. Simply put, locutionary force is the exact meaning behind a communicator’s message, and illocutionary force is the intent and the understanding generated by that same message. Together, these two forces make communication extremely complicated.

Illocutionary forces are influenced by context, background, education, experience, positions of power and intelligence, just to name a few of the many contributors. This means no two people will develop the exact same understanding of a message. In units that have been together for extended periods of time, the illocutionary force of communication can combine with the locutionary forces to develop a shared understanding, in which everyone understands a “close enough” meaning of the words being used.

A simple example of this is slang that means something in one context but is meaningless in another. In the Army, this concept is problematic for units that are composed of a multitude of different MOSs and where different words are used in different ways.

To illustrate this concept, consider Fish is Fish, a children’s book by Leo Lionni, in which a fish and a frog are friends who part ways when the frog grows legs and leaves the pond. When the frog returns, he tries to describe the wonders he witnessed on land to the fish, but no matter how hard he tries to gain shared understanding, the fish cannot grasp the concept of anything that does not look like a fish. 

Similar to the fish and the frog, humans tend to take the illocutionary forces associated with our words for granted and cannot fathom how other people can understand the meaning of our words in different ways. This obviously causes a problem for communication because the listener never quite grasps the exact meaning that the communicator intends. This can lead to simple misunderstandings—or catastrophic failures—over time.

Nonverbal Messages

Another factor that complicates illocutionary forces is the nonverbal communication that accompanies most attempts to communicate. Unfortunately, for many leaders, this is where the wheels fall off the proverbial communication cart. Many scholars believe a large percentage of communication is nonverbal. Thus, when nonverbal factors surrounding a message do not match the locutionary forces of the words, unintended communication occurs via the illocutionary force.

To understand this concept better, consider someone who states a random fact while smirking sarcastically. In this case, we tend to believe that the communicator intends to communicate something different than the words they are using. Environmental interference (such as background noise or distractions) can also cause issues in the nonverbal realm, and can distort the locutionary forces of words by distracting the listener.

Another form of nonverbal communication is power. When power is introduced into the process, the illocutionary forces diverge even further from the locutionary meaning. 

Power of Positioning

One of the most interesting theories relating to power is positioning theory. The central tenet of positioning theory is the idea that people use their communication attempts to confirm or reaffirm their power within organizations. This can have disastrous consequences in attempts to share intent and generate a shared understanding. Positioning theory suggests that when leaders make comments like “I am the commander,” “I am the sergeant major” or “because I said so,” they are using their language to position themselves higher than those with whom they are communicating. The obvious downside to positioning is that it disables honest communication from subordinates because they do not wish to be seen as out of line with their leaders.

As it turns out, those with the least power within organizations pay close attention to those in higher positions, and even subtle or unintended positioning will be observed and acted upon. The higher that one is promoted, the more subordinates will try to interpret the underlying meaning of the message from the leader. “Yeah, that’s what she said, but that’s not what she means” can become common vernacular within units. This means Army leaders must be acutely aware not only of what they say, but how they say it. 

Part of the System

The fundamental attribution error is the idea that every system is perfectly designed to get the results it is getting, and that undesired outcomes are the fault of the system and not the people who act within it.

Therefore, if soldiers are frequently acting in ways that do not align with the commander’s intent, there could be a systemic cause. One such cause could be that the communication systems a unit is using are not adequate for subordinates to develop a true understanding of the commander’s intent.

For example, if a leader is simply relying on a biweekly newsletter, Twitter or Facebook to communicate with their formation, there is a good chance that the information system is not enabling feedback, which is the only real way to know if a unit is developing a shared understanding. The same can be said for leaders who hog bandwidth and communicate with their soldiers using the filibuster approach. When leaders talk too much, it is not overcommunication. It actually inhibits communication, because they are always in transmit mode and never in receive mode.

Thus, when examining communication systems, it is important to allow for sending and receiving information. Unfortunately, people who hog bandwidth tend to be chosen as leaders, but the most successful leaders know how to share the airtime.

Finding a Solution

While successful communication is a two-way process, the leader is the only one who can fix communication issues because most subordinates will not speak up if they don’t understand a message.

Fortunately, a solution to poor communication resides in Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-22: Army Leadership and the Profession. The publication outlines the attributes and competencies required of leaders in its “leadership requirements model.” The word “requirements” is there for a reason. The Army is not asking, it is requiring that leaders apply these attributes and competencies within the model. Specifically, one of the competencies under “leads” is “communicates.”

According to ADP 6-22, a critical part of effective two-way communication is active listening. Active listening means one must abstain from interrupting, take mental or written notes, maintain eye contact and repeat the message back to the communicator to ensure correct interpretation.

In addition, both leaders and subordinates must be aware of what their nonverbal movements and conversational positioning convey. When done well, this awareness can create convergence between locutionary and illocutionary forces, and enable development of a shared understanding. A word of warning: Effective communication is hard work and not for the faint of heart.

Sgt. Maj. Robert Nelson is the senior instructor and vice chair, Department of Army Operations, U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, Fort Bliss, Texas. He has served in a variety of leadership assignments over the past 29 years, ranging from squad leader to command sergeant major. He has made operational deployments to Kuwait, Haiti and Honduras. He holds a doctorate of education from Vanderbilt University, Tennessee.

Command Sgt. Maj. Gabriel Arnold, U.S. Army retired, is the chair, Department of Army Operations, Sergeants Major Academy. Previous assignments include command sergeant major, U.S. Army Cadet Command and Fort Knox, Kentucky, and regimental command sergeant major, U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School. He deployed to Operations Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. He holds a master’s degree in adult education and lifelong learning from Pennsylvania State University.