How Leaders Use Developmental Communication

 By: Josh

What does this situation require?

How can I add the most value in this moment right now?

Is it the right kind of value that’s needed? 

These are questions we should aim to ask ourselves in any interaction we have with someone on our team to maximize the developmental impact of the moment. 

Intentional leaders view every moment as an opportunity for development. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is shut up, listen, and let others fill leadership space. But if we do need to be the one to take up that space and add value, what kind of value are we adding? And is it the right kind of value that’s best suited for the current situation and the other person’s developmental needs? 

Leaders must be cognizant of what the moment requires and be able to tailor the value we add to meet it. What is needed right now? And what can we offer? We do this with a bias for developmental communication – viewing every moment as an opportunity for development and doing what we can to maximize the developmental impact in this current moment through the way that we communicate. 

So, let’s explore five common forms of developmental communication that leaders can use in any moment: guidance and decisions, feedback, teaching, mentoring, and coaching. These focus on maximizing developmental impact, aiming to tailor our communication and how we approach scenarios with an emphasis on development, ultimately seeking to make the situation and the other person better through our interaction. In our exploration, we will look at when we should consider employing each specific form and what it can look like in our behavior. We also offer a few recommended resources to dig deeper into each approach.

5 Forms of Developmental Communication

We organize the variety of developmental communication we can offer into five basic common forms: guidance and decisions, feedback, teaching, mentoring, and coaching.

Guidance and Decisions

What it is: Providing purpose, direction, and instruction is a core competency of leadership; we must provide structure and information to move our team forward. But we do need to understand that this approach tends to be the least developmental because through it, we provide our teammates with the instructions, decisions, or plans necessary for them to act. Rather than co-creating or letting them explore a course of action, we (the formal leaders in the scenario) provide these to our team with the expectation that they then implement the guidance or decision.

What it looks like: We provide information so that people can act on it. This can come in the form of instructions, a decision, or a fully developed concept. It may include the 5Ws (who, what, when, where, why) and other relevant details. However, guidance can be developmental when we aim for creating autonomy. We can deliver the what and the why in our guidance (what the task is and why it matters) but aim to not deliver the how. By letting our people determine how to accomplish the task or whatever guidance we give, it affords them space to figure it out, and thus space for development.

When to use it: Guidance and decisions should be used with careful consideration for two key factors – time and risk. We can turn to simply issuing guidance when there is little time to act, thus not affording the ability to engage in the other forms of developmental communication (they tend to be time consuming). We can also use it when the risk associated with the task is more than what anyone on our team should assume, meaning it should be our risk to own.

Some recommended resources:


What it is: Any stimulus that provides insight to the impact we have on others and our environment. It can be data through a survey, a non-verbal reaction or gesture someone makes, or verbal or written comments people provide to assess our behavior. When leaders give feedback to teammates, we do so to improve their self-awareness – helping them to close the gap between what they intended to accomplish and what they actually do accomplish. Feedback can be constructive (aiming for improvement) or positive (often in the form of gratitude).

What it looks like: Many teams can incorporate feedback systems such as peer evaluation surveys and regular performance evaluations. Leaders can incorporate it into routine meetings like one-on-ones to make developmental feedback more normalized. Broadly, though, when leaders are looking to deliver feedback, we should provide three things – identify the behavior (“when you do this…”), clarify the impact (“it causes this…”), and provide an example to anchor it to observed behaviors and not just subjective perceptions (“such as when you did X at Y”).

When to use it: One opportunity is when a teammate is deliberately working toward a goal. If they are aiming to achieve some result or improve a skill, we can use feedback to inform them of their progress. Second, we should leverage feedback if we assess that the person is lacking self-awareness and can benefit from some external stimulus to help them better see their impact. It can help temper the Dunning-Kruger Effect where everyone assumes they are above average and better than they actually are; it can also help those with a humbler approach understand the impacts they are achieving but may fail to realize. In the end, there is a ton of feedback orbiting around us every day that we hardly tap into, or that leaders fail to provide others. As leaders, we ought to use the power of feedback more routinely and thoughtfully for our peoples’ improvement.

Some recommended resources:


What it is: Gaining new knowledge and capacities is an essential component of development. We need to learn and understand before we can practice it. Leaders can often put on a teaching hat to grow teammates’ abilities.

What it looks like: We can use teaching for development formally or informally. Say we onboard new hires; they certainly need to be taught about our organization, their role, and how to do it. That would all be a formal program of teaching. It can also come informally during work if an employee is looking to take on more responsibility, or if our team uses a new technology system or administrative process.

The US Army leverages a training progression of “crawl – walk – run,” where Soldiers first learn a skill through education, often in a classroom-style setting. Then, they practice it in a slow and safe environment. After some repetition, they then elevate to a more challenging training scenario before finally ending at a “run,” where they complete the task under a combat-like environment. If this progression wasn’t present, and a Soldier was put directly into a combat-like environment, the results could be discouraging at best, and deadly at worst. While our organizational context might not have life and death consequences, the lesson remains – deliberate teaching is key. Progression reinforces the importance of teaching first, and a leaders’ role in that phase.

When to use it: Leaders teach when our people have a willingness to learn, potential for increased responsibility, and the space to learn a new skill. This is the leadership approach of “teaching someone to fish rather than merely giving them a fish to eat.” It develops improved self-sufficiency in the long-term, ultimately generating improved capacity for leaders and the team.

Some recommended resources:


What it is: Mentoring typically is a long-term developmental relationship between a more senior person (more experience) and a more junior person (less experience), where both benefit from the relationship. Mentorship is often associated with the senior person using their experience to provide advice and perspective. A simple, yet effective model for mentoring can be: (1) listen, (2) share what you know, and (3) repeat. Advice is common (“I think you should…”), but perspective is more powerful (“Let’s think of it like…”).

What it looks like: Mentorship can look like many different things – in-person vs. virtual, individual vs. group, and even smaller gaps in experience to the point of even being peers. When leaders leverage the developmental benefits of mentorship, it is sometimes focused on advice giving, but more often on providing perspective. Less experienced junior employees often lack visibility of the bigger picture and an understanding of the forces at play around (above) them. Leaders can use mentorship to provide that context, helping them to appreciate the bigger picture and broader environment.

When to use it: Simply when a teammate needs a nudge. Again, mentoring can come in the form of advice, offering recommendations or ideas to them. But a more powerful approach is a leader sharing perspective when a teammate is facing a challenging problem, like a professional or moral/ethical gray area. It is not telling the teammate what to do, but offering insight to consider as they work to arrive at their own decision.

Note: I don’t want to give the impression here that mentoring has noteworthy challenges. Mentoring in a pure form can be one of the most powerful developmental activities we can engage in. However, when a leader is aiming to leverage mentoring within a superior-subordinate type relationship is when it can become dicey. The leader can be perceived as passive-aggressively prescriptive, using advice or perspective as subliminal guidance. Or the subordinate can be fearful of the consequences if they don’t comply with the advice given. Leaders just need to be careful when leveraging mentorship with a junior teammate that reports to them, using clear boundaries, agreements, and always focusing on the developmental best interest of the junior member.

Some recommended resources:


What it is: It’s using a more curious, question-based approach to leading. This form of communication often has the most developmental potential but requires the most amount of discussion and time between leader and team member. Through a coaching style, the leader focuses on using questions to have the team member discover their own ideas rather than quickly jumping to guidance or advice.

What it looks like: The leader asking thoughtful, well-crafted open-ended questions to drive the team member to think more critically, creatively, and deeply about the issue at hand. It actually looks like little to no value coming from the leader at all because we aim to not provide advice, perspective, or directives. We intend for our team member to still own the issue, and we use a line of questioning to help them arrive at a solution because we believe they are capable of it. Our team member ends up being the one to do all the work; they just need some encouragement to move outside of their comfort zone a bit more.

When to use it: When we want a team member to own the issue at hand, knowing full well they have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to address it. We use it to cultivate a greater sense of self-efficacy and self-sufficiency in them through it, leading to improved capacity in the future. We use it to remove ourselves as the sole problem-solver on our team and developing others to deal with issues or problems on their own.

Some recommended resources:

  •  Article: How to Ask Better Questions. The first step is knowing we can lead through curiosity. The next step is being able to ask better questions.
  •  Book: The Coaching Habit, by Michael Bungay Stanier. A great primer on how we can be more coach-like in how we lead, offering a simple but fantastic 7-question model to use.

These are Skills that Leaders Must Develop

Each of these forms of communication is a skill which requires us to continually learn and grow in proficiency. We then hone that proficiency as we put that knowledge to practice to develop our abilities. Ultimately, we aim to turn these abilities into natural, personal leader habits.

We also need to develop discretion on when to apply each of these different forms of communication. Some are easier than others, such as simply giving guidance or teaching, which may lead us to default to them more often. Leaders also typically have this inherent “advice monster,” where we subconsciously resort to giving our perspective and our advice, making mentorship an easy button we often press. This approach is usually popular because it leads us to feel like we are adding the most value in the moment and because we assess we know best due to our experience. However, while all forms do add value, they may not be what is best for the current moment.

So, first, leaders should spend time and energy to learn more about these forms of developmental communication and how to put them to practice. This is how we build our developmental communication “muscle.”

Second, in any moment, we ought to be routinely asking ourselves a few questions:

What can I do that would be most helpful for this person’s growth right now? What are they asking for? But really, what do they need?

How can I help this situation the most right now? What would be most valuable for the matter at hand and for those involved?

What can I do that will matter most 5 days from now? 5 months? 5 years?

More is not better. Remember WAIT – Why Am I Talking? Is my approach benefiting me or them right now?

Remember, every moment is an opportunity for development. But also, more is not necessarily better. More talking, more value, more of ourselves inserted into the scenario does not automatically make it better.

We must be thoughtful and deliberate in how we approach these moments so we can maximize the impact we have, the value we add, and the development we offer.

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