Patterns of miscommunication in organisations
The hierarchical structure of many workplaces tends to constrain or even stifle open exchange of ideas and information. This is particularly apparent in communication between employees who are at different levels in a hierarchy: people are generally reluctant to speak their minds in front of their managers, even when assured that it is perfectly OK to do so. There is good reason for this: managers often “talk the talk” about being open to other points of view but contradict their words subsequently (see my article entitled, the paradox of the learning organization, for an example of this).
In this post I draw on this paper by Max Visser to describe some of the tactics or patterns of miscommunication which managers employ to sideline, devalue or even completely dismiss employee viewpoints.
Those who toil in the lower echelons of an organisation’s hierarchy can easily sense the gap between managerial talk and intent. One setting in which this gap becomes particularly evident is in group meetings, where a manager’s words may say, “speak freely” but his body language or responses may append an unspoken “be aware of the consequences” clause.
As I have discussed in this post, communication is just as much about context (e.g. manager-subordinate relationship within an organisational setting) as it is about content. This point of view is central to the interactional view of communication that originated in the work of Gregory Bateson and Paul Watzlawick. According to the interactional view, communication operates at two levels: the spoken or written meaning (content) and the situation/relationship (context). Among other things, this view focuses on the ways in which the content of a message – such as “speak freely” – may be rendered ambiguous by signals that appear to contradict it. In the remainder of this post we’ll look at a few ways in which managers do this via verbal communication. We’ll also take a brief look at the different ways in which employees respond to such behaviour.
Patterns of miscommunication
The best way to describe these patterns is through an example. Consider the following situation:
An employee presents a business case for a new CRM system to his manager. In the presentation, the employee describes the rationale for implementing a new system and then evaluates a few products based on agreed financial, technical and other criteria. Finally, he recommends a particular product, System X, based on the evaluation and then seeks feedback from his manager.
The manager, who does not want to commit to a course of action may choose one of the following strategies to devalue the employee’s work:
In this case the manager makes a statement that acknowledges the employee’s message but ignores its content and intent by saying something like:
“So how long have you been working on this?”
By going off on a tangent, the manager avoids giving a relevant response.
There are four types of disqualification
This occurs when a manager avoids giving a response by changing the topic. For example, the manager might glance at his watch and saying:
“Oh is that the time? I have to go, I’m late for a meeting with my boss.”
The difference between tangentialisation and evasion is that in the latter, the manager does not even acknowledge the message.
Sleight of hand
Here the manager appears to acknowledge the message, but then switches the topic. An example of this would be a response along the lines of:
“Yes, you enough data for a Phd thesis here [laughs]. I think we’re drowning in data.“
The point here is that the manager initiates a discussion about a side issue – the volume of information presented in the business case rather than its relevance or veracity. Moreover this is done in an apparently light-hearted, yet somewhat demeaning way. Thus although the manager avoids giving direct feedback, he still makes it clear he does not think that the employee’s work is up to scratch.
Here the manager switches the focus from the message to the messenger. Usually status disqualification is accompanied by insinuations regarding the messenger’s competence. A typical example of this would be a comment like:
“It’s clear you have not done these kinds of presentations before!”
Without saying it explicitly, the manager is implying that the employee has not done a good job and therefore no further discussion is necessary.
This is where the manager lobs the ball back in the employee’s court by asking a question that implicitly challenges the employee’s conclusions. An example would be:
“[smiles knowingly] I see, but does your data justify your choice of System X?”
Such a question signals the manager is not convinced, but without explicit disagreement. The onus is now on the employee to justify his conclusions.
Here the manager changes the context of the discussion altogether by saying something like:
“Let me tell you something about CRM systems.”
Here the manager changes the frame of the discussion – it is now about educating the employee rather than evaluating the product. Of course, in doing so he also insinuates that the employee’s analysis is not worthy of a response.
Employee responses to managerial miscommunication
When faced with any of the above tactics, the employee can respond in one of the following ways:
- Meta-communication: Here the employee understands the manager’s tactics and attempts to point out the inconsistency and double speak in the manager’s response. This is a risky course of action because the manager may view it as a direct challenge to his or her authority. However, if done right, the manager may actually become aware of the incongruence of his/her response and change behaviour accordingly.
- Evasion: Here the employee withdraws from the conversation by ignoring the manager’s message altogether. One way to do this is to offer no response at all, but this might not be possible as the manager may well insist on a response.
- Acceptance: In this case the employee accepts the content of the manager’s response, but ignores the non-verbal signals (derogatory tone, looking at watch etc.). In doing so, the employee effectively accepts the manager’s criticisms.
- Countering: Here the employee counters the manager’s message by using one of the tactics of the previous section. This generally leads to a verbal escalation as the manager will view such a response as a direct challenge to his authority and thus respond in kind.
Because of the nature of the manager-employee relationship and the fear of challenging authority, I would hazard a guess that majority of employees would respond by acceptance or (more infrequently) by evasion. In an ideal organisation, of course, they would respond by meta-communicating.
In this post I have described some common patterns of miscommunication between managers and the managed in organisation-land. The common element in all the patterns is that the manager acknowledges the message at one level but responds in such a way as to leave the employee confused about how the response should be interpreted. In effect, the miscommunicating manager avoids giving a response.
The interactional view of communication tells us that context and relationship are more important than the content of a message because what is not said is often more significant than what is. The patterns listed above make this amply clear: managers who miscommunicate are asserting their positional authority rather than saying anything of substance or value.