What leaders get wrong when communicating vision

We all know it’s important for employees to understand their company’s vision. That’s how they get aligned and engaged, know how their work fits in to the bigger picture, and make a better decision with less supervision.

And yet, a frequent issue with the CEOs I coach is that they tell me—with frustration—that their employees say they don’t understand the vision, while they believe they articulate the vision all the time.

What’s going on? In my experience coaching CEOs and senior leaders for 20 years, and talking with hundreds of employees, I’ve found five root causes for this troubling disconnect.

You think you’re conveying the vision, but you’re not

You may be taken aback to hear that your employees aren’t hearing the vision from you, but the first to thing to consider is that they may be right.

When you’re a leader, you carry a lot of context in your head. You think about the company a lot, and that means that the vision and other higher level topics might be so clear in your head that you simply forget to articulate them. So, the first thing you should check is whether the words that you think you’re saying actually come out of your mouth.

Perhaps you know for a fact that you talk about the vision. You might want to check if you’re doing that frequently enough and in the right venues. One CEO I coached told me definitively that she had conveyed the vision over and over again. “I can prove it!” she said and showed me her slack channel. We browsed the slack together and we saw one long note about big picture vision, mission, and strategy–and that was it.

Remember that, for people to really take in what you’re saying, they need to receive it from you in large groups, in small groups, in one to ones, and in writing. And they need to hear your leadership team around you articulating the same points. That’s how people will really ingest it.

They don’t have clear goals or understand their roles

Sometimes, people have trouble articulating what’s wrong. They call out the vision as the problem, when they simply don’t know what their role is, or how their work fits into the bigger picture. Basically, they’re just confused, and instead of doing the work to figure out what’s bothering them, they lump their complaint into not understanding the vision.

Your employees’ confusion about their roles usually stems from one or two reasons. They may not have clear goals or ways to know how to define success in their role. This is often tied in with managers who don’t do the work of helping them create metrics and then achieve them, and then help them see how their goals tie to the bigger picture.

As the leader, your job is to make sure your managers know that a key part of their role is making sure they know what they’re shooting for and how it relates to the north star of the company.

Some questions you can use and encourage your executives to ask their employees are

  • Do you know where we’re going as a company?
  • Do you know what your clear goals are for this quarter/year?
  • Do you see how your goals tie into the bigger there anything blocking you?
  • Are you getting enough direction from me or your manager?

They don’t know how the company will get there

As the CEO or high-level leader, you might think an aspirational vision will help motivate your employees. But this backfires when it seems so far-reaching that they have no idea how you’ll get there as a company. In this case, they may understand their goals and they may appreciate the vision, but they have no idea how they’ll bridge from here to there.

I encountered this inside of a health care company. The employees loved the company culture and what they were trying to do, which was truly transformational. However, the vision statement was at such a lofty level that employees were left to their own imagination to figure out how it related to them. Most employees didn’t want to do this work, and those who did landed on different interpretations, which means rather than aligning the team it kept them subtly out of sync.

You can resolve this by making sure you and your team think about how each groups efforts translate into making progress toward the vision. You might ask your leaders to come up with a catchy phrase that showcases their teams’ contributions to the bigger picture. Then make sure they’re using these phrases with their teams and working with them to translate those taglines into even more finite nuggets so people understand how to contribute their ideas and actions towards the vision.

A medical company did this beautifully in their executive team offsite I facilitated. Their vision was a lofty statement about touching lives, and they did this through their agreements with various partners. Each group took that vision and strategy and connected it to their teams with a slogan, so that even teams without direct customer contact felt involved in the bigger picture. The technology team, for example, rallied around “seamless connection” and the finance team coalesced on “make it easy for partners after they say yes.” These taglines helped everyone be connected to the company’s overall north star while guiding them in their day to day.

There’s something else wrong

It’s alarming to hear that your employees don’t understand the vision, until you dig deeper and find out that what they really mean is something worse: like your culture is toxic, or they’re angry at you or the leadership team personally. When people are struggling, and they don’t feel safe to talk about back-stabbing, bad management, or other problems in a dysfunctional culture that’s toxic; they may turn to a safer complaint of not understanding the vision.

This was the case with one CEO I coached who did legitimately talk about his vision all the time, both for the company as a whole and for the good it could do to humanity. But his executives were adamant that they didn’t understand the vision. It was really puzzling what was going on, so we decided to do a retreat to get everyone on the same page about the vision.

As the day went on, and we discussed in great detail the vision and the strategy, I realized that the problem wasn’t the vision. The problem was the CEO. They were angry that he was so external-facing and hadn’t tasked anyone with dealing with operational issues. They were upset about his lack of management of the executive team. And the list of their grievances went on and on. They got the vision, but they didn’t have any other way to express their frustration—until we created a safe space in our facilitated meeting.

They like to complain

You can’t please all of the people all of the time. And some of the people you can’t ever please. They’d simply rather complain rather than do the hard work of . . . actually doing their work.

When you have employees like this, you can certainly find roles that are a better fit for them—more than one employee has turned from a problem to a performer when they get into a more aligned role. Or you might see if their manager needs to take a different tack. But ultimately if “I don’t understand the vision” is code for “I’m not happy here,“You will be doing everyone a favor by turning them loose to find an opportunity they can embrace.

It’s certainly frustrating when your employees don’t understand the bigger picture despite your best efforts. But when you use this concern as a prompt to dig deeper, you may find that you are able to unearth other issues in your organization and resolve them to make your company run more smoothly.

Alisa Cohn is an executive coach and the author of From Start-Up to Grown-Up.

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