Mixed Messages

Close friends and I were reflecting on the year’s events.  One friend made a comment that had me thinking about mixed messages.  She commented on how difficult it has been to filter out the noise from the truth.  Recent events have underscored the dangers of mixed messages- is it safe to gather or not?  Do I wear a mask or not?  Is the pandemic a hoax?  Do I get vaccinated or not?  Different news sources seem to come from different planets.   

These mixed messages have caused much heartache and angst.  In Utah, a doctor told a story of a patient critically ill of COVID, who refused to believe he had the virus.  His source said there was no such thing.  On a macro level, mixed messages can cause disastrous results. 

On a micro level, the same mixed messages can ruin a business.  Similar to national news, small business must seek out good information sources. Valid information can help us avoid mistakes and identify new opportunities.  Small businesses don’t have the funds to hire a corporate intelligence specialist.  They must develop cost-effective ways to keep abreast of industry changes that may impact their business.  The information sources must be reliable and up-to-date.  Industry and trade organization websites and publications are good sources of comprehensive information about changes in specific industries.   

The world of business can be full of crossed signals.  Your management style can add to the problem or aid in delivery of information employees can trust.  When managing employees, mixed messages can deteriorate engagement.  Some mixed-messages we have seen involve: 

  • A manager calls an employee to thank her for completing a job on time and on budget.  The manager then outlines a new initiative.  The employee wonders if this was a feedback call or a request to do a new task. 

  • The CEO stresses the importance of being creative then says he likes when things are done the way he likes them. 

  • A manager tells an employee to think “out of the box” and disciplines the employee for not following prior methods. 

  • An owner talks to new hires about the importance of doing things differently due to industry changes but then is road-blocked by a tenured manager who wants things done the way they have always done it. 

  • The Executive Director says there is no money in the budget for raises but then announces new construction planned for next year. 

  • The CEO asks the employees for their opinion.  One person raises his hand and expresses a concern.  The employee is terminated the following week. 

The question is not whether these messages were correct or not. There may be good reasons behind the decisions. Mixed messages occur when employees misread a situation or event.  We’ve seen these situations play out when a message from a CEO or manager were not received in the way they intended.  These messages contained too little information or not enough context.   

A manager can thinks he/she solved a problem, when in fact, they created a new one.  What is said by one person is often what’s misunderstood by another.  Intent may be clear to the manager but may not be clear at all to the employee.  There may be a disconnect between senior management’s wishes and mid-level managers delivery. 

It is helpful to follow-up with employees to be sure messages were accurately understood.  Hey, just ask them.  Numerous kinds of candid, accurate feedback methods allow to flow to the top.  Surveys, 360 evaluations, and systems measure on how effectively employees are attaining results.   

If leaders communicated a unified message about the pandemic, I believe people would have rallied together and seek ways to meet the challenge. People have an uncanny ability to get behind a cause they believe in.  Seeking multiple points of views and testing the validity of sources can be hard but not impossible.   

Leaders need to mean what they say and say what they mean.  Consider less about what is said and focus more about how it may be received.  Clarity is essential for good decision-making and good people management.