One day about 15 years ago, Doug, the newly minted GM of a cable TV network, was touring the set of a popular show on his channel. I happened to be with him; he had just engaged me as his executive coach, and we agreed it would be good for me to observe him in his ‘natural habitat,’ interacting with the folks on his team. It was pretty quiet; they were just beginning to set up for a taping.
Doug is a very friendly, unpretentious guy, and was bantering with the show team, most of whom didn’t know him. At one point he squinted and said, “Wow, those lights are bright, huh?” A few minutes later, he walked off the set. I had stayed behind momentarily, and I noticed that as soon as Doug left, the set became a hive of activity. I turned to the manager next to me and asked what was up. “We’re fixing the lighting,” he said. “Didn’t you hear him?”
I checked with Doug, and as I suspected, he was just making conversation: he wasn’t giving direction about the lighting. He was shocked that the team had interpreted his casual comment as a “do this.”
This happens remarkably often. As senior executives, it can be easy for us to forget that people listen to us differently than they listen to their peers – or than they listened to us when we weren’t their boss, or their boss’s boss. The lesson I took from that experience – and have been speaking with executives about ever since – is that when you are a senior person in an organization, it’s critical for you to recognize the impact of your communication in order to avoid creating unintended consequences.
Sometimes not doing so can affect an entire organization. Early in his tenure at Home Depot, Bob Nardelli was on a stores tour. He discovered in conversation with a store manager that almost all of the frontline people were full-time employees – and that this was true throughout the organization.
He noted that would make it difficult to staff appropriately for higher and lower traffic periods, and suggested that a mix more like 50/50, half full-time and half part-time, might serve the business’ staffing needs better by providing more flexibility.
The senior team members traveling with him took it as an edict.
Over the next few weeks, they began to institute the new “policy” in a fairly draconian way: store managers were told they had to achieve the 50/50 staffing “goal” by a certain date. Many hundreds of last-in employees were informed they no longer had full-time jobs – if they wanted to keep working at Home Depot, they could do so only as part-time employees.
Nardelli only realized what was happening when employees began sending him angry messages. Undoing the misunderstanding was complex and costly, and eroded morale and productivity.
So, how can you make sure that your team and your organization hear you accurately? How can you ensure your words have the impact you want them to have?
Provide context – When you state a point of view, let people know why you’re saying it, and what you expect to have happen. Nardelli could have contextualized his comments by saying something like, “I’m surprised we haven’t thought about this. It seems to me a more balanced mix of full- and part-time front line employees would be more efficient. Let’s talk about this at our next executive team meeting and decide how to move forward.”
Consider the audience – Some people are more likely than others to assume that opinion equals an edict when you speak. It’s important to recognize this and modify your communication accordingly. For instance, one of our CEO clients recently realized that her CFO is a very concrete, linear thinker, while she herself is more holistic and given to brainstorming. He had misinterpreted a number of her ‘what if’ speculations as specific instructions to create business models – and so had invested a good deal of his time and his folks’ time going down unnecessary pathways. She now knows that she needs to preface her thinking out loud with him by saying something like “let’s just throw around some ideas about this. Then we’ll decide which ones – if any – to pursue.”
Recognize cultural tendencies – When my client Doug and I discussed the lighting incident after it happened, he noted that show teams are, by nature, more action-oriented; their work is all about making things happen within a tight timeframe. If you lead in an organization or in a function where people’s first impulse is to turn words into actions, you have to be even more careful about how you speak.
In short, if you’re a senior executive and you’re speaking to others about possible courses of action, remember that you’re not ‘just you’ – you’re the person to whom people are looking for direction. It’s your responsibility to make it clear whether or not that’s what you’re providing
Erika Andersen is the founder of Proteus International and the author of Leading So People Will Follow (Jossey-Bass; October 2012).