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Are You Getting in the Way of Your Message?

My peers had gathered, pitchforks in hand and conspiracies on their minds. Six months into the year, we received a two-sentence e-mail from our director. In it, he announced we wouldn’t receive a sales contract this year.

This change was alarming to everyone. For years, we’d signed a contract, specifying our revenue targets, bonus tiers, and terms of payment. Already reeling from a disappointing sales year, our team had many reasons for concern. Our ‘Worrier’ wondered if layoffs were imminent. The ‘Hothead’ predicted management was out to stiff us again. While our ‘Veteran’ warned us not to read anything into the announcement, she quickly tapped her network to gather intelligence.

The director certainly delivered the wrong message. On the surface, our team was asking the same questions: will we get paid or keep our jobs? Beyond that, we interpreted the news differently based on our perceptions of practices and management. Worse, the message – cropped, one-way and impersonal – failed to address key details, leaving the director’s intentions open to interpretation.

In the end, we’d jumped to conclusions. After being stampeded with questions, the director clarified the previous contract terms would also apply this year. However, this blip illustrates a larger theme. Too often, managers take communication with their reports for granted. They devote their energies upwards, catering to their superiors, focusing on big picture efforts and communicating top-down. They grow distant from their front line staff and day-to-day operations. In the process, they fail to take their team’s pulse and solicit feedback.

It’s a story as old as business. Managers intuitively know they can’t trust what gets back to them. And employees justifiably worry any questions or criticism will place their jobs in peril. You could say managers and employees are more like enemies. Each side politely smiles and engages in small talk, all while warily eying the other, neither saying what they’re truly thinking.

In this environment, words and gestures take on greater meaning. Without understanding the history, aspirations, and institutional barriers weighing on their employees, managers risk being misinterpreted. Even more, managers must understand how they—as both company ambassadors and flawed individuals—are perceived. Otherwise, an innocuous act can easily distract or enflame.

For example, managers decide as necessary to quickly marshall resources against a competitive threat. However, their employees may fault them for again failing to solicit their opinions or weigh alternatives and consequences. Here, management may consider themselves decisive, but their reports may view them as cloistered.

Employees bring their personal experience, including baggage and bias, with them to work. No surprise there. So it’s equally understandable that messages—particularly context and delivery—can quickly tear open old wounds. So how do you reduce the potential for your message being distorted or symbolizing everything wrong with your operation? Consider these lessons:

Communicate Face-to-Face: As children, we’d arrange ourselves in a circle and whisper a message from person-to-person, and we’d giggle when the words and meaning would change when they reached the last person. It’s no different as adults. Announcements like major changes require two-way communication. Words and intentions can easily be misconstrued before they’re spread, particularly without tone and body language to reinforce them. Fact is, how you deliver the message is a message in itself. Moreover, physical distance and verbal one-sidedness can potentially make your message ominous or insulting.

Know Your Team: Sure, you have to be tough sometimes, and you can’t always care what people think to get work done. However, there’s a time and place for that. When formulating a message, anticipate how your team will react and what questions they’ll have. Know what issues are important to the collective group…and the key personalities who can make or break you. Address both early, so they don’t assume the worst. Most important, candidly look at the assumptions you hold. For example, do you view your people as partners—or simply a means to an end? If it’s the latter, it’s probably seeping into your message—and your employees have already picked up on it.

Get Issues into the Open: Unresolved issues often lead managers and employees to perceive situations differently. Managers may be oblivious to issues plaguing their department—or be a root cause behind them. When issues aren’t addressed—or dubious practices are treated sacrosanct—you create an environment where any message is tainted by the messenger. Clear the air. Accept the feedback—even when you’re tempted to justify (let alone retaliate). Act on it. Someday, you’ll need your employees’ buy-in when the stakes are higher. Create an atmosphere where the message willl be is understood for what it is, not interpreted according to what could be.

About the Author(s)

Jeff Schmitt is an online columnist for Bloomberg BusinessWeek (www.businessweek.com). He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail (jschmittdbq@mchsi.com) or follow him on Twitter (jefflschmitt).