By Jimmy Guterman
In organizations, communication can go quickly awry when people shape the way they present the same information differently for different audiences, so much that important elements get lost, obscured, or minimized. It happens more often you might think.
Imagine that your company has a project underway, and it’s not working out well. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Upper management didn’t define the project tightly enough. Those executing on management’s vision didn’t push back to make sure they knew what was expected of them. And it took you a while to figure out what was really going on. The project is now off track, running late. It can still be saved, but only if everyone is clear on what’s gone wrong and how to fix it. Without clear, direct, and consistent communication, you can’t solve the problem.
It’s hard to tell your boss that he or she is wrong about something and must rethink it. It can be equally hard to tell someone on your team that they are responsible for a problem and must change the way they are working. It’s only human to want to please other people. As managers, you both hope the people you report to find your contributions valuable and that the people who report to you feel like you are looking out for them. It’s easy to mistake avoiding hard truths for protecting your people. But being overly kind in such instances really does everyone a disservice.
Showing people that they’re doing something wrong is enormously valuable (not to mention necessary), but it’s easy to get nervous and shy away from direct communication and the conflict it might bring. When faced with such situations, many managers tell only the parts of the story they feel safe sharing with different groups. You start shaping stories as you communicate with different people so you don’t hurt anyone’s feelings or get anyone in trouble.
I once had a manager who, in the face of problems, would only tell one group that reported to him what the other group that also reported to him did wrong, even when there was plenty of blame to go around. I guess he thought it made us feel closer to him, but what was really going on was that he was gossiping in half-truths instead of giving us the difficult but necessary input we needed to get our jobs done well. I never got to ask him, but I suspect he operated that way because he was afraid of confrontation. He didn’t respect us enough to give us honest feedback. He simply created confusion, which his different audiences had to sort out for themselves once they realized that his stories were not consistent. In Business Communication for Managers, Payal Mehra emphasizes the value of open, credible communications inside companies.
It’s hard to overestimate the value of telling the same story up, down, and across the chain. For one thing, consistent messaging reduces your own cognitive overhead: you don’t have to remember which version of the story you’re telling to which person. More importantly, it forces you to make sure that all your audiences are clear on what other parties’ expectations and statuses are. Rather than shelter people from the whole truth, you can use the whole truth as a way to bring people together. As David Cowan writes in Strategic Internal Communication, “dialogue can integrate an organization.”Your instinct might be to be as nice as possible and to protect your pals as best you can, but the best way to serve them is probably to tell them the truth – and tell everyone else the same truth, too.
(Editor’s note: check out Safari’s new Management Communication section for more resources to help you hone your communication skills.)