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Leaders assess, adapt and create opportunities for effective two-way communications

Knowing your audience and what’s relevant to them will create opportunities for delivering useful messages that lead to understanding and application

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Listen for the “leadership echo” in conversations you have with the staff you visit in the facility.


I recently saw an old leadership article from early in my corrections career where the author stated, “communication has many purposes and forms, but the ultimate goal is simple. It is to deliver a message that is understood.”

This idea is what many of today’s leaders consider communication. A one-way flow of information from the decision-makers on top of the organization chart to the workers below. But communication is not this simple. It has many other important areas that make the difference between an ordinary boss and an effective leader.

Adapt to the audience’s needs

Most of us have been in a meeting or roll call where a supervisor speaks on the department’s core values or guiding principles. What is meant to be a motivational and inspiring speech, quickly turns into a book report on honor, integrity, courage, ethics or commitment. Often, big words are used to let everyone know they are a valued part of the team at the institution.

But, in the end, staff leave feeling like the gap between them and their leaders just widened. Why? Why were they not inspired? The supervisor delivered the message, but there is a huge gap between what the supervisor thought they delivered and what was actually heard by the staff because the supervisor didn’t adapt the message to the audience’s needs.

As a firearms instructor, I need to know my students, so that I can give the class what they need. I want to find out if they are comfortable handling weapons or are generally novices. Knowing this information guides the way I teach the class and improves the way the course material is received. The students get the training they need instead of the one size fits all instruction because effective communication is never one size fits all.

Assess the needs of the audience

Before adapting the message to the audience, a good supervisor learns what the audience needs. Get out of your office and talk to the people your message affects. This doesn’t have to change your message, but it may change your delivery. As you visit and meet with staff, you may find there are questions you can answer immediately.

You may find that staff is dealing with other challenges right now which you might be able to address before dropping the next challenge in their lap.

Create opportunities for two-way communication

Many leaders use emails to send clear and concise messages to employees. Emails are a good way to relay pertinent information, but leave out the ability for two-way communication, which often widens the gap between staff and management.

A recent workplace communication preferences poll revealed email is not the most effective way to reach employees. Sixty-one percent of respondents revealed they either occasionally, often or always ignore emails at work.

In my experience, managers and supervisors have a habit of forwarding emails to everyone to ensure that they don’t miss anybody. I also believe that the main reason employees don’t engage with internal content is that they get too much information that is not relevant to them. Staff recipients might be thinking, “don’t they know me better, does this have anything to do with me?”

Effective communication quick tips

The ability to effectively communicate as a professional can inspire others to follow your lead and may make the difference between the success or failure of your message. Here are a couple of quick tips to make your message a success:

  • Ensure staff understands how their work affects the agency’s strategic goals.
  • Build trust in the workplace by encouraging two-way communication.
  • Encourage employee collaboration and make important information available.
  • Keep employees informed of successes and changes.
  • Listen to the leadership echo.

I learned from a friend to listen to the “leadership echo,” a sign of effective communication success. As I made my daily rounds through the institution, I asked corrections officers questions and listened to their answers. Hearing part or all of my message from staff in their answers was the “leadership echo.”

NEXT: Leadership is communication and communication is leadership

Host of The Prison Officer Podcast, Mike Cantrell has been in corrections for over 28 years. He has recently retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons as the Chief of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. He is a firearms, less lethal, breaching and disturbance control instructor and has led special response, disturbance control and canine teams over his career.

He is a correctional consultant specializing in the use of force and physical security. He is a writer, content creator and speaker on leadership and crisis management.