May 31, 2005

Good day, team,

The coach’s challenge this week is about sending out mixed messages. Last week, I was coaching one of my clients who is a manager. He is struggling because he has to deliver a new program that his boss just told him about. This program entails changing many of the ways his team has been doing things, and he knows they are going to resist these changes. He also knows that two years ago, the company tried putting this same program in place. At that time, it didn’t work, and the manager had to try extra hard to fix the damage that the program caused.

On top of all of this, he knows that his current boss hasn’t fully bought into the program either. Though his boss said, “This is the new program we’ll be rolling out, and I want you to get buy-in from your team and make sure it happens,” the manager’s intuition told him that his boss really wasn’t behind it and wasn’t convinced it would work. (Research shows that listeners interpret only about seven percent of a message through words. For the other 93 percent, they are relying on demeanor, gestures, tone of voice and other nonverbal clues.)

What usually happens next in this situation is that the manager then delivers another mixed message to the team members. Now they have the same problem: Do we trust the words or the underlying, contradictory impression?

How can we avoid such situations? We have to go back to the source of the mixed message. The responsibility lies with the boss who delivered it in the first place. By failing to acknowledge his own mixed feelings about the program, the boss started a chain of communication that people couldn’t trust.

Rather than simply delivering the “party line,” the boss could have acknowledged that he is not completely sold on the program, but will make an effort to get behind it and hopes that his managers and their team members will do the same. That way, he’s delivering the message but also being frank about his contradictory feelings. People are far more willing to support someone whom they believe is describing the full picture.

The manager could also have pushed back on his boss by being honest with him, saying, “I know you want me to buy in to this program, but frankly, we have tried it once before. It didn’t work, and I’m skeptical about trying it again.” At least then the manager has been true to his feelings, and even if he can’t change the rollout of the program, he can ask his boss for suggestions on how to deliver the message.

People are far more perceptive than we imagine them to be. If you often send out mixed messages, your team will begin suspect you even when your actions and words align with your feelings.

This week, try matching your words more closely to what you’re really thinking and feeling. Even if we can’t say exactly what those thoughts or feelings are-since professional behavior needs to be ethical and well-balanced-we can tell the truth more often by acknowledging what is really happening, instead of pretending that it’s not.

Have a great week!

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