Contradictory Communication

Christine Johnson on

Recently, I was driving a rental car to the suburbs north of Atlanta.  While I had an idea of where I was going, I decided to use my phone’s GPS to help guide me.

En route, I realized that I needed to go to another location first so I entered new GPS information. I exited where instructed.  Then I started getting confused. The directions told me to go right and in next sentences told me to go left.  I was going in circles.

I pulled off to figure out what was going on. As I sat at a stoplight, I continued to have one set of directions telling me to go right and then say go left.  I sat there and asked myself “Why am I getting contradictory directions?”  Finally, it hit me.  Bam! When I put in my new location, I failed to turn off the GPS for the first location.  I was getting two sets of directions simultaneously.  Chucking slightly at myself, I turned off the first set of directions and arrived at my second location in a few minutes.

My innocent GPS fiasco represents larger issues that goes on in organizations daily: contradictory communications.  All of us have been there before.  You receive information from one person in the organization.  Then another person says something different. See which of these contradictory information faux paus you have experienced at work.

Company values versus manager guidance

Company values define how the organization is going to be successful and stand out from their competition. Organizations like Southwest Airlines and Zappos embrace their values, turning words on a page into cohesive actions for their team.

Yet, other organizations struggle with keeping the tight link between their values and what actually happens in the organization.  You know the ones.  They have “high quality” listed on their values list, but the front line managers tell employees to rush an order out the door, sacrificing a quality-driven product for on-time delivery.   Or when “integrity” is a key value driver and an employee is told by a C-Suite member to tell the customer the issue is handled even though it is not.

This contradictory communication is detrimental to an organization’s culture.  Employees who care about the organization’s values and their own values deeply start looking for a new job.  Employees leave organizations that lack communication transparency, lack management transparency, and operate under misguided directs.

Promotion vs. “We can’t lose you in this role”

In my many years working in human resources, I have never understood this type of contradictory communication.   Take a look at this scenario:

Employee A is a top performer, has successfully led stretch projects, and with some additional training and shadowing would be a great fit for a promotion.  Employee A’s manager tells her that she is being considered for a promotion, but to sit tight for a few months.  Six months pass and Employee A hears nothing.  Employee A approaches her manager to find out that she is too important in her current role – – – the value in her current role is greater than that of her moving into the new role.  As a carrot to keep her moving, her manager gives her a bonus and says nothing more.

As a HR professional, I can tell you that after a “manager walk-away” many of these employees headed straight to me to sort out why they were not promoted.  Several words came to mind each time I talked to one of these employees: unfair, lawsuit, and untrusting.  Just the type of employee every organization wants.

Whether this contradictory communication is intentional or not, its ramifications are huge.  Travis Bradberry said in a 2016 Forbes article “Smart companies make certain that their managers know how to balance being professional with being human. These are the bosses who celebrate their employees’ successes, empathize with those going through hard times, and challenge them, even when it hurts. Bosses who fail to really care will always have high turnover rates.”

Peer to Peer Misguidance

Just like the telephone game, peer to peer communications often show how key business points can easily get off track. Of the employees talking during a conversation, one is looking at social media, one is worried about family problems, one is planning for lunch, and so on.  The employees are bringing their own set of baggage to the conversation that may tilt or skew the conversation.

An organization’s message of “We cutting costs and aiming for a 20% increase in revenue” may change to “There are going to be job cuts and the organization is hurting for money.”  So why do these messages go astray?  Strong communication skills are a work in progress.  Since most employees do not view conversations this way, they miss these important components:

  • Self-awareness of others is important- Employees forget to account for their peers’ communication styles and preferences.
  • Stress or changes in the organization make communication for difficult- Minds wander. The message changes.
  • Gossip and other noise get in the way- It is hard to get a message across in the right context when intermixed in the conversation is a summary of who is having an affair, who is being fired, or simply, “Did you hear what he said?”

SnackNation, a company that sells healthy snack boxes to businesses and individuals, shared a great point:  “One of the worst mistakes a company can make is to neglect to tell their own employees about big company news first. It’s a more common problem than you might think. Most of the time, big announcements come from the company’s communications department. Many of these teams are so externally focused that they notify press before their own employees.”  And guess what?  The rumors fly.

Writing vs. speaking

Social media.  Texting.  Chatting.  Email.  For many people, these are the main ways communication happens every day in the office.  While communicating face to face is challenging enough, written communication is even more difficult. Ever get an email or text where you could not tell if the person was happy or angry?

A written piece takes our thoughts as well as current and past feelings and mixes it with the English language and typos.  Add an emoji or double exclamation points and the stage is set for contradictory communication.  On top of all of this, if you take too long to respond, the recipient thinks something is wrong.

I know I have been guilty of this.  I have sent emails or texts that were construed the wrong way.  It then took more emails and texts to clear up the situation.  Talking with the person initially would have been easier and saved me a lot of time.

In all three of these scenarios, there is one common theme: poor communication.  Employees expect their leaders to be communication experts.  Employers expect employees to be at minimum decent communicators.  Both of these assumptions are wrong.  Communication, like many other skills, takes practice and reflection.  When planning organizational training programs or working with employees on setting development goals, don’t forget to include communication learning.  Without it, contradictory communication will continue to cost organizations time, money, and employees.

Communication skills training and coaching resources from Cued Forward’s Learning Provider Directory:

Advantage Behavioral Health (Group Programs)

Deserve Level Coaching (Individual Programs)

Grace Lichtenstein, Coach (Individual and Group Programs)

image potential (Group Programs)

Julie Ostrow: The Humor, Laughter and Improv Coach (Group Programs)

Weselak & Associates (Individual and Group Programs)

Image credit: Pixabay

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