Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Leaders Need Flexible Communication Skills

Effective leaders tailor their approach depending on the desired outcome.

Key points

  • The tell-and-sell approach works well when combined with a charismatic leadership style.
  • Ask-and-listen works well when you need creative solutions from your subordinates.
  • Effective leaders tailor their leadership style to match the current situation.

Whether you’re the CEO of a major corporation or team leader on a small project, you’ll find that you spend most of your work time talking with your subordinates. Particularly at higher levels of the organizational hierarchy, managers spend 70 percent to 80 percent of their time in discussion, mostly with those working under them. Leaders employ a variety of communication styles, but generally speaking, the goal is to get their subordinates to work toward a common goal.

According to German psychologists Niels van Quaquebeke and Fabiola Gerpott, leadership communication styles tend to fall into two types, which they call tell-and-sell and ask-and-listen. They outline the differences between these and the right situations for using each in a paper they recently published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology.

Tell-and-Sell and Charismatic Leadership Style

Leaders may tend to use one or the other style when they engage with their subordinates, but van Quaquebeke and Gerpott maintain that truly effective leaders need to be flexible in their communication styles, using each according to the particular situation and the specific goals the leader hopes to achieve.

In the tell-and-sell approach, leaders communicate a common goal to their subordinates. This is the “tell” part. Leaders then try to convince their subordinates that this is a goal they want to work towards. This is the “sell” part.

To be effective, leaders who use the tell-and-sell approach will have to rely on their personal charisma to win over the hearts and minds of their subordinates. Autocratic leaders may tell their subordinates what to do and expect them to obey. But without the sell part, subordinates will passively comply to the minimum extent necessary to avoid punishment, and they may even actively work to sabotage their leader’s goal.

In contrast, charismatic leaders can actually get their subordinates to want to work hard and make sacrifices, because they have bought into the vision their leader has sold them. We only need to think about famous charismatic leaders such as Steve Jobs or Barack Obama to see just how effective the tell-and-sell leadership style can be in galvanizing a corporation or a country toward a common goal.

Ask-and-Listen and Democratic Leadership Style

The tell-and-sell approach works well when leaders already have a clear vision of a common goal and the pathway to reach it. But when this isn’t the case, leaders can be more effective when they use the ask-and-listen communication style. In this approach, leaders present a general idea of a goal but seek input from their subordinates to clarify that goal as well as to plan the pathway to it.

In the ask-and-listen approach, the leader's role is to create a safe environment for all subordinates to express their opinions. Thus, leaders have to listen to their subordinates’ responses without judgment, trusting that the discussion will work its way toward a consensus. Although leaders should refrain from expressing their own opinions at this point, they do need to ask questions and use paraphrases to clarify understanding.

When leaders use the ask-and-listen communication style, they aren’t trying to sell a common goal to their subordinates. Rather, they're trying to lead their subordinates into building a common goal of their own making. Because all members have had their voices heard, and because the group has come to a consensus, dedication to the cause is generally quite strong. This approach works well when there’s flexibility in the outcome the leader hopes to achieve.

Choosing the Right Communication Style for the Situation

Both leadership communication styles can be effective, but they work in different ways. The tell-and-sell approach is about giving subordinates a sense of who they are as a group. We are the ones who will make the next major technological breakthrough. We are the ones who will overcome problems to make society better. In this way, subordinates gain a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves.

In contrast, the ask-and-listen approach is about giving subordinates the sense that they can work together to achieve common goals. Because the leader has listened with an open mind to their ideas, the subordinates feel empowered to put the plan they devised into action, and because that plan arose from the group, they’ll generally feel quite devoted to it.

If you’ve found yourself in a leadership position before, you probably see yourself in one of these two styles. However, as van Quaquebeke and Gerpott point out, it’s not a question of which leadership communication style is better. Rather, it’s about which one will be more effective in a particular situation.

To be an effective leader, you need to be flexible in your communication style. If you have a clear vision, tell-and-sell is the right approach, but you’ll have to rely on your personal charisma to get your subordinates on board. In contrast, if you’re looking for a creative solution to a problem, and if your subordinates have sufficient expertise, an ask-and-listen approach is the way to go. And you won’t have to sell them on the idea, either, as they’ll buy into it themselves.


Van Quaquebeke, N. & Gerpott, F. H. (2023). Tell-and-sell or ask-and-listen: A self-concept perspective on why it needs leadership communication flexibility to engage subordinates at work. Current Opinion in Psychology, 53, 101666.

More from David Ludden Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from David Ludden Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today