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4 Hidden Challenges that Hold HR Leaders Back From Effective Communication

Nicole Klemp

Effective communication is a cornerstone of successful leadership. It’s the conduit through which HR leaders build trust, resolve conflicts, and create a positive workplace culture. 

But sometimes, even the most competent, experienced people leaders struggle with a crisis of confidence now and again, finding it hard to summon the courage or confidence to advocate for themselves or others. 

Is it possible that the very strengths that make you a great HR leader are preventing you from communicating effectively when it matters most?

In a recent episode of the HR Superstars podcast, Michelle Gladieux, founder of Gladieux Consulting and author of Communicate with Courage, shared the four challenges that cause leaders to hold back from communicating effectively and how to overcome them.

Finding the courage for conflict

According to Michelle, being a “people person” can make it more difficult to communicate effectively when you believe doing so may cause conflict. To keep the peace, many HR professionals put others’ needs or desires ahead of their own, even when it means going against what they feel is right or correct. 

“The average HR person is deeply kind, they’re deeply empathetic, they’re considerate of others, they put the wants and needs of other people in front of their own,” she said. “Sometimes, because of that amazing strength, there’s this other component, like advocating for what they want or communicating with confidence and courage is a muscle that needs to be developed.”

The solution, she says, is digging deep for the courage to debate, advocate, negotiate, and mediate until you’re fully satisfied that your concerns have been addressed—even when doing so takes you way beyond your comfort zone.

The four communication challenges to overcome

When a need arises to advocate for yourself or others, Michelle says you have two choices: to walk through the fear and tackle the issue head-on or to experience the regret of not doing so later. When a people leader struggles to find the courage to face that fear—and say what needs to be said—there are four potential challenges that may be holding them back.

1. Hiding your “weaknesses”

According to Michelle, one hidden challenge HR leaders face is the inclination to hide vulnerabilities. This often stems from the fear of being rejected or judged for having some actual or perceived weakness that you don’t want others to see. This tendency to hide can extend to negative beliefs about oneself that have lingered since childhood.

The work to overcome this challenge can begin when you start seeing your vulnerabilities as strengths. When you open up about your challenges and express your commitment to improving, you can serve as a role model for employees at all levels. Sharing your journey of self-improvement not only humanizes you but also inspires others to bring their authentic selves to work.

Michelle recommends bringing any self-sabotaging messages into the light by writing them down. By acknowledging and addressing these false beliefs, you can begin to dispel them, fostering self-acceptance and more authentic communication.

2. Defining to be right

Another challenge HR leaders face is the tendency to define communication interactions as a battleground to prove themselves right. This rigid approach can stem from biases or a tendency to cling to assumptions without question. To be effective communicators, we must adopt a more flexible mindset.

To overcome the need to be right, Michelle recommends embracing your curiosity. When faced with differing perspectives or experiences, approach conversations openly and empathetically. Allow others to share their viewpoints without immediate judgment. 

Instead of insisting on being right, focus on learning from diverse perspectives. Asking “Please tell me how you see this” can lead to a more constructive and inclusive communication style.

“You don’t have to agree with them at any point,” said Michelle, “but you can have the emotional intelligence and maturity to allow other people to make their statements and speak their truths and their beliefs and desires and combine that with your personal world knowledge.”

3. Rationalizing the negative

According to Michelle, the third hidden challenge, rationalizing the negative, is a pitfall that can deter HR leaders from taking risks. It’s easy to fall into this trap, especially if communicating your ideas or efforts has been met with resistance in the past. 

“If you have selected to live with a negative or a pessimistic mindset, you will find less success as a communicator because you are already ruling out all kinds of opportunities that you could take that may have a beautiful outcome,” Michelle says. “If nothing else, you’ll learn from trying.”

Effective communication often requires the strength of optimistic thinking. Rather than rationalizing the negative, shift your mindset towards the belief that there’s a potential positive outcome or benefit worth pursuing. This mindset shift can give you the courage to continue to engage as a communicator and influence change within your organization.

4. Settling for “good enough”

The final hidden challenge Michelle shared is the temptation to settle for “good enough.” This means opting for mediocrity rather than striving for excellence in communication and culture-building.

As an HR leader, you’re the architect of your organization’s culture and play a pivotal role in creating a positive work environment. Instead of settling, being vigilant and assertive in recognizing and addressing problems when you see them is crucial. 

Michelle says this can be achieved through a blend of diplomacy and assertiveness. By not settling for a mediocre result, you can aim higher and advocate for your people more effectively. When communicating what you need or what needs to be done, find common ground, but don’t accept less than you or your organization deserve.

“If you’re an HR leader, you are the culture creator in your organization,” she said. “You’re there to make a difference, and you have to be constantly vigilant about what’s happening in the culture so that you can be a positive influence on it. You are somebody who’s willing to be a guardian… When we’re settling, we stop at good enough rather than striving towards higher payoff interactions and higher payoff communication.”

Communicate with confidence

To tackle these challenges and manifest the courage to have difficult conversations, Michelle recommends HR leaders spend some time alone visualizing success. This is particularly helpful if you’re nervous about communicating with another executive or someone senior to you. 

“I want [you] to picture entering the room, thinking about the eye contact you’re going to make, who’s going to be there, making small talk (if there’s time), and imagine an excellent conversation with intelligent questions,” she said. “Your boss might make a couple of zeros more than you in annual income, but you are no more or less valuable than that person.”

Get the full conversation on the HR Superstars podcast

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