Any time I interact with someone I lead, I see it as a deliberately developmental opportunity. Through our interaction(s), I aim to grow their knowledge, skills, and/or abilities in some way. Any time I am communicating as a leader, I am engaging in one of five types of developmental communication: setting expectations, giving feedback, teaching, coaching, or mentoring.
I leverage the appropriate type based on the person, the situation, and context. Should I be giving targeted feedback in this moment or should I be helping them better understand by providing perspective as a mentor? Should I set clear expectations or would it be better to coach them through determining their own ideas and plans?
These types can be applied at the individual level (one-on-one) or collective (to a small group, your whole team, etc.). Further, these can all be done in formal or informal settings. For example, feedback can be given formally in a scheduled meeting where you provide planned and thought-out feedback on performance for an evaluation report. Or, it can be offered informally in the moment if someone is failing to meet basic standards or expectations.
As leaders, we must determine and enact the most appropriate type of developmental communication to maximize our peoples’ effectiveness and growth.
Setting clear and complete expectations is the critical foundation to enable successful performance and results. Leaders fail when they don’t set expectations, if they communicate ambiguous or unclear ones, or don’t even fully know what their expectations are (being indecisive in knowing what they or the team need).
The U.S. Army offers two helpful models for leaders to set and communicate clear, complete expectations:
- Outlining task, conditions, and standards. Leaders define the actions that must occur (task); the boundaries of those actions through limitations, restrictions, or constraints (conditions); and a description of the desired end state (standards).
- “Commander’s intent,” which captures purpose, key tasks, and end state. Here, leaders communicate the purpose of this action/event to codify the “why” to others (purpose), essential actions or tasks that must occur to be successful (key tasks), and painting a clear picture of the end result (end state). Key tasks can be adapted to capture actions that must occur or setting other boundaries that must be considered.
Further, consider that what you don’t include in your expectations can be just as important as what you do. By outlining every single task and detail in your expectations, that can remove the ability for people to apply innovation or adaptability if necessary (referred to Mission Command in the U.S. Army). As a leader, it’s important to define the essential expectations, communicate your desired end state or results, and leave enough space within those boundaries for your people to successfully operate – not being stifled by micromanagement or a lack of freedom of movement/choice.
As one friend stated, your ability to provide feedback is in direct proportion to your ability to lead. Feedback is required for growth in self-awareness and realistically understanding our level of performance. Feedback is important to give to develop others. It’s important to receive feedback to both improve ourselves as well as to role model the ability and willingness to receive it well for others. Finally, it’s important to foster an “open-system” culture on your team that enables feedback and learning.
I find it is challenging creating high-feedback cultures for three reasons:
- A lack of psychological safety within the team and leaders failing to role model an openness to receive feedback. This develops an organizational fixed mindset and silence.
- Leaders lack the candor to provide quality, constructive, and relevant feedback to others.
- Leaders do not prioritize feedback and leader development; they demonstrate that they don’t have time to provide feedback to others.
There is a high-level of art to giving/receiving feedback well that requires continued learning and practice. Below, I offer some additional resources to learn more on the science and the art of feedback within our teams and organizations:
- Getting in the Arena: Creating a Culture of Truth & Feedback, from the 3×5 Leader Development Handbook.
- The Lost Art of Giving (Negative) Feedback, by 3×5 Leadership.
- How Leaders Can Get Honest, Productive Feedback, by HBR.
A Note About Expectations & Feedback: I conceive U.S. Army counseling as a continuous loop of leaders setting expectations and providing feedback on those expectations. Typically, “initial counseling” serves as the opportunity to formally set expectations. Then, all following counseling sessions between leader and subordinate focus on providing performance feedback based on those expectations. Obviously, counseling can capture much more than that, like goal-setting, but I believe that is the bare essence of Army counseling.
The process of leader development involves the interdependency of three primary activities: challenging developmental experiences, new knowledge and capacities, and reflection . One important way that we develop other leaders is by shaping and growing their knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, and skills.
While our people will develop through their experiences, we can also do so through targeted training, education, and facilitating deliberate reflection.
You can read more about leaders as teachers in the 3×5 Leader Development Handbook.
Acting as a coach, a leader has stake in “the game,” but is not on the playing field (like a sports coach). They are not teaching, not providing guidance (expectations) or feedback, nor are they offering advice and perspective like a mentor (below). As a coach, we leverage a high level of questioning, inquiry, and investigative learning to get our people to maintain ownership of the decision/issue at hand, come to their own conclusions, and ultimately improve their self-sufficiency and learning.
In my opinion, coaching is the most complex and challenging type of developmental communication. It requires an increased level of education on process and style, as well as extensive practice to refine and improve. I encourage leaders to continue to learn more about coaching with some initial resources:
- The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, by Michael Bungay Stanier.
- One-the-Job Development: Leaders as Teachers & Coaches, from the 3×5 Leader Development Handbook.
- Coaching – An Essential Leadership Tool, by 3×5 Leadership.
- You Need a Peer Coach to Become a Better Leader, by 3×5 Leadership.
Finally, leaders can also be mentors. Mentorship is a developmental, voluntary relationship between someone of greater experience with someone with less. The key for this is the relationship being voluntary and the leader not acting like a “boss” in these interactions. A mentor offers things like perspective and advice to their mentee. A mentor does not necessary set expectations nor offers feedback like a boss. Leaders can be mentors to those that officially report to them; it can include a lot of teaching, a little bit of coaching, and even some feedback. But we must understand the boundaries between that and setting expectations and giving feedback while wearing the “boss hat.” There are clear distinctions in our attitudes and approaches as a leader-mentor.
Read more about leaders as mentors in the 3×5 Leader Development Handbook.
WHAT TO DO NEXT
With this new way for leaders to think on developmental communication, we are challenged with a few things moving forward:
- There is no “right” or “best” type. All five types are important and add value for leader development. And different scenarios will call for different types. While I personally err toward coaching, I cannot only be a leader-coach. I must be more hands-on at times with expectations, feedback, teaching, and sometimes offering advice as a mentor.
- We must select the best type of communication for the situation. If we are entering a formal setting, like a scheduled meeting with someone we lead, we should consider the type of communication that the meeting would benefit most from before entering it. If in an informal setting, consider what the other person would benefit most from before you speak. We tend to default to giving advice in many settings. However, consider what this person most needs right now for their performance and their continued development?
- Practice to get repetitions in. There is a high level of art to these five types. They all need practice. How do you get better at running? The most basic answer is to just start running. Similarly, how do you get better at coaching? Start practicing it; then work to get feedback on how you’re doing at it. How to get better at providing feedback? Start giving it…and then get feedback on your feedback.
Good luck and lead well!
The content within this post reflect my personal thoughts only and do not represent that of the U.S. Army or any other organization captured within.
The five types of developmental communication originally appeared in the 3×5 Leader Development Handbook blog series on this website (referenced throughout this post), but is being shared in a new, singular post here to re-address this important topic and model.
 Forsythe, G. B. & Spencer, E. H. (2018). Leadership development: Growing effective leaders. In Smith, Swain, Brazil, Cornwell, Britt, Bond, Eslinger, and Eljdid (Eds.), West Point leadership. New York, NY: Rowan Technology Solutions.
If you find this post helpful, subscribe to receive weekly email notifications of new content!