Enhancing leadership effectiveness by diversifying communication messages

With the unprecedented changes to the nature of work brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is no surprise that demands on talent and leadership are changing too. As more work automates and jobs become dominated by uniquely “human” capabilities, organisations need to foster new skills, not least of which is in the ability to communicate.

Oral comprehension, oral expression and active listening for example, are all top five skills predicted to be in demand in Western workforces according to Deloitte insight (Knowles-Cutler and Lewis, 2016)

Professor Mikkelson and Dr Sloan from Whitworth University, with Professor Hesse from Oregon State University, recently examined different communication styles between supervisors and employees across a range of industries including service (28.7%), education (14.0%), government (6.8%), manufacturing (6.2%), high-tech (14.3%), and other industries (30.0%). A key finding of the study was that most effective leaders, regardless of their leadership style, communicated essential messages of trust and influence.

Given the impact that leadership and supervisor-employee relationships have on employee satisfaction, organisational loyalty and engagement, this contemporary research has potential implications for learning departments, change management, leadership identification and development as well as employee engagement initiatives.


The overall purpose of the research was to identify communication messages which accurately predict differing, yet effective, leadership styles.


The research examined a population of 307 individuals who volunteered to complete a series of surveys on the behaviour of their immediate supervisor. Specifically, the researchers were interested in the preferred leadership style of supervisors, as well as both Intimacy and Dominance messages of communication.

  1. Leadership style: Task and Relationship oriented styles were measured using the Leadership Style Questionnaire (Northouse, 2013) which examines behaviours of a leader towards their followers. Task leadership includes planning, goal setting and establishing performance standards, while Relational leadership includes showing concern for others’ wellbeing and developing friendly, personal connections.
  2. Intimacy: Burgoon and Hale’s (1987) Relational Communication Scale was employed as a valid and reliable measure of participants’ recollections of their supervisor. The Relational Communication Scale measures immediate or delayed communication perceived as involvement/affection, similarity/depth or receptivity/trust as well as dimensions of communicator credibility and communicator attitude.
  3. Dominance: Dominance was measured behaviorally to determine the most and least dominant individuals in a group using Burgoon et al’s (1998) Interpersonal Dominance Instrument which considers both positive and negative aspects of dominance such as ‘influence’, ‘conversational control’, ‘focus and poise’, ‘panache’ and ‘self-assurance’.

Based on these aspects of leadership and communication, the researchers hypothesised that relational oriented leadership would be correlated with intimacy communication messages, while task oriented leadership would be correlated with dominance communication messages. In other words, a harder, more task oriented leadership style would contain more dominant messages. While a softer, more relational leadership style would employ more intimacy messages. Additionally, the study looked for predictive correlations, attempting to identify which observed communication messages accurately indicated a preferred leadership style. In doing so, the authors could both classify the role of key messages in each leadership style and identify the most effective leaders based on their communication messages, rather than embarking upon a more in-depth psychological evaluation.


The study’s primary findings indicated that task oriented leadership was correlated with all five dominance variables, or in other words, leaders focused on achieving work related goals are more effective when they communicate with dominant messages of influence, focus and self-assurance. On the other hand, relational oriented leadership was correlated with all three variables of intimacy, indicating messages which communicate warmth, inclusion and openness create strong connections between supervisor and employee.

Additionally however, further analysis revealed some interesting and counterintuitive findings:

  1. Task oriented leadership shared a positive correlation with intimacy as well as dominance, suggesting task oriented leaders who communicate with positivity, trust and inclusion are likely to be more effective.
  2. Relational oriented leadership positively correlated with most aspects of dominance, suggesting that leaders demonstrating influence, focus, panache and self-assurance are likely to build stronger relationships with their employees.

Finally, the authors examined which variables of communication are most likely to predict the effectiveness of both task and relational leadership styles. Interestingly, task oriented leaders communicate influence messages in order to be effective, while relational oriented leaders must communicate trust and reciprocity to build effective relationships. The most effective leaders overall however, blend both dominance and intimacy messages, leveraging trust, similarity / depth, influence and focus regardless of style.


The implications of this type of cross-disciplinary research examining communication and leadership are far reaching. The supervisor/employee relationship is critical in both soft and hard measures of organisational performance, such as engagement and retention respectively. However more practically, the present study shows how leaders themselves can best leverage divergent leadership styles by ensuring that their key communication messages centre on trust and influence.

Human capital practitioners can build upon these findings to identify and accelerate future leaders’ career paths. The study highlights an opportunity for the assessment and development of communication messages to effectively accelerate leadership effectiveness, rather than expecting strong style preferences to shift. Further, cross-cultural leadership interventions can be applied. Learning specific and highly nuanced cultural behavioral anchors when leading cross-cultural teams can be challenging and result in a high risk of failure for expatriates, softening preferred behavioral approaches with appropriate communication messages is likely to be effective in mitigating this risk and should be considered in onboarding expatriate and business travelers.

These findings highlight the increasing need for proficiency in communication in the new era of work and outline the essential messages leaders need to send to enhance their impact across a diversified workforce. The demands for agile leadership continue to grow and an effective understanding of how to deliver effective communication is critical. One such example of this can be seen as organisations flatten and become more networked and team centric, the benefits of teams leading teams is emerging (Deloitte Global, 2018) as the most effective way to tackle the complex issues facing organisations today. This model requires leaders to motivate and engage members of distant teams or groups of people they are unfamiliar with. In this context, delivering diverse communication messages will accelerate teaming processes and lead to more effective ways of working sooner, as well as mitigate any negative impact of differing leadership style preferences.

To read the full article see Mikkelson, A.C., Sloan, D. and Hesse, C., 2017. Relational communication messages and leadership styles in supervisor/employee relationships. International Journal of Business Communication, p.2329488416687267.

Knowles-Cutler, A., Lewis, H., (2016). Talent for Survival. Deloitte Press, Deloitte United Kingdom.

Deloitte Global., (2018). Human Capital Trends. Deloitte Press, Deloitte United States.

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