In general, digital natives born after 1980 have done more communicating on screens than previous generations. (Duh.) Unfortunately, this has made it more difficult for them to establish emotional connections and trust with their non-digitally native colleagues – especially as executives onboarding into new roles. But now, all of a sudden, we’ve all gone digitally native and have to do a better job of communicating feelings and attitudes as close-to-live as we can.

Many are familiar with the 10-35-55 rule suggesting 10% of communication is in the words, 35% is in the tone and 55% is in the body language. Albert Mahrabian’s actual study, which he described in “Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotion and attitudes,” applied only to a more specific and precise case:

  • 7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken.
  • 38% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said).
  • 55% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression.

This, of course, is exactly what executives onboarding into new roles have to do. They have to communicate and connect at a feeling and attitudinal level to establish trusting relationships.

Many digital natives have spent too much time in their formative years connecting through screens instead of live and face-to-face. They rely on words and substitute emojis for tone and facial expression.

We’ve all seen examples of this playing out with people coming in to lead or join teams. I was in the office of one new leader, four weeks into his role. He told me he had spent his first few weeks learning about the business, its situation and his team, and was ready to share his go-forward strategy with them. He explained this would be an education process because it was going to be new to all, so he was going to go slow, starting with a simplified two-page document.

I asked, “What are you going to do with that document?”

“Get my boss’s approval and then share it with my team.”


He looked at me blankly, not understanding the question.

Do you understand the question and what was wrong with his approach?

“Educating” is the same as Bryan Smith’s “telling.” Smith lays out five ways to persuade someone: tell, sell, test, consult, co-create. The different ways yield different levels of engagement. Telling (or educating) yields compliance at best. If you want people to contribute, you need to sell, test or consult. And, if you want people to commit, they have to co-create and co-own the path forward.

The new leader in our story above changed his approach. His new plan was to:

  1. Have face-to-face, live meetings with his direct reports and peers to get their input on his current best thinking.
  2. Then have a face-to-face, live meeting with his boss to get approval to the strategic direction.
  3. Then have another face-to-face, live meeting with his direct reports to share the approved strategic direction and co-create their tactical path forward.

Implications for onboarding those born after 1980 or who have been forever changed by COVID-19’s social distancing.

Accept them as the digital natives or survivors they are. Use digital methods to communicate things they need to be aware of and comply with. Enable their digital communication in the same vein.

Prompt and encourage live, face-to-face meetings when possible for times when feelings and attitudes matter.

  • This is always going to apply to early meetings with new colleagues up, across and down where mutual trust is going to be important.
  • This is also going to apply to pivotal communication and decision-making meetings where feelings and attitudes come into play.

In other cases where live, face-to-face meetings are not warranted (or not allowed because of COVID-19 or the next crisis,) bridge as much of the gap as possible by using video-conferencing tools and by giving people time and space to explain their feelings and attitudes on phone calls and in digital communication.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #636) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan