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How To Avoid Sending Mixed Messages

Tuesday 5 June, 2012
As leaders, we know to be sensitive about mixing our messages. When our staff receive mixed messages, the negative emotion naturally dominates, and becomes - in the minds of our staff - associated with the memory of the event. Discover how to avoid sending mixed signals to communicate more effectively.

How To Avoid Sending Mixed MessagesWe humans make sense of our world by classifying our experiences, conversations and other people. Our classifications are binary in nature; they are an either/or category. The most common is good or bad. Other common classifications are them and us, like me or not like me, happy or sad. We make our classifying decisions based on the emotion we experience - our feelings - at that moment. 

Confusing or mixing messages occurs when the receiver of the message thought that the message was going one way ("good") but it turns out that it was going down the other way ("bad") or vice versa. Emotions are conflicted. 

Examples of mixed messages

By allowing your emotional detectors to guide you, you'll become more aware of any mixing of your own messages, and can also learn by observing others. Here are some common examples:

  1. A CEO is hosting an end-of-year celebration event to thank the staff for a successful year. In his speech the CEO thanks the troops and then can't help himself - he preaches that "we need to maintain our focus in the year ahead to maintain sales".

    Mixed message received

    The message is now mixed and the staff wonder if it was really a "thank you" event or a "kick off" event for next year. It alters their feelings associated with the event.
  2. A manager calls one of their staff who works in another location. The manager's intention when calling was just to say hello and to check if the person needs anything (a good thing to do). During the call however, the manager remembers a task that they need to talk to the person about. They raise the task.

    Mixed message received

    Suddenly the receiver who had categorised the call as a "nice check-in" thinks, "Oh, my boss really wanted to get me to do something".
  3. A manager calls a candidate for a job to let them know that they have been unsuccessful. Rather than just let the person know they were unsuccessful and explain why, the manager gushes about what a good candidate they were and how well they interviewed.

    Mixed message received

    The person categorises the call as "insincere", given that they missed out on the job.
  4. A manager recently appointed to the leadership role meets with their new direct reports in individual meetings (a good thing). But the manager confuses the purpose of the meeting by not making it just a get-to-know-you meeting, by also raising their performance expectations.

    Mixed message received

    The staff member, who thought that it was an introductory meeting suddenly feels like they're put on the spot.
  5. A manager gives a staff member negative feedback, but confuses the message by starting with praise (as per the unhelpful "feedback sandwich" approach).

    Mixed message received

    The receiver initially thought they were being acknowledged for their good work, to suddenly find the big BUT shifting the conversation to what they are doing wrong.

Mixing emotions

When we mix our messages, we are confusing the emotional response - the feelings - we trigger in the receiver. In the first part of our message we are leading the person down the path of either good or bad, for example, and then we confuse the message - the person's emotional detectors - by diverting them down the other path.

Given our hardwired instinct for loss aversion, when we mix our messages, the negative one dominates. The negative emotion becomes the memory of the event.

Tips for leaders

The remedy to avoid mixing messages is simple - stick to one emotion associated with each event. When there are two objectives to cover, it becomes necessary to separate the events, so that the emotions attached to each don't mix.

Using the examples above:

  1. The CEO who is driven by anxieties about next year's results should celebrate this year's results and find another occasion to talk about the new year.
  2. The manager who is calling for the purpose of checking-in, and who suddenly remembers a task item, should generally leave the task for another call, perhaps the next day.
  3. Calling an unsuccessful candidate means letting them know they have been unsuccessful - without the sugar coating that will likely be received as insincere.
  4. The manager who is meeting people for the first time should decide if the purpose of this meeting is to be a relaxed and "positive" one and leave the performance target discussion to a second meeting. It doesn't all have to be covered the first time.
  5. Giving negative feedback means covering the topic and generally leaving any praise for another time. 

Our guide is the receiver's emotional detector. If our message is intended to be "positive", then make that the message and don't confuse the issue by mixing with a "negative" one. Leaders should avoid trying to squeeze too much into any one interaction, and thereby will achieve greater clarity in their communications with staff.

Author Credits

Andrew O'Keeffe, Hardwired Humans. Hardwired Humans assists business leaders design and implement people strategies based on human instincts. Through understanding human instincts leaders can predict what will work and can avoid the predictable mistakes if instincts are ignored. For further information visit the web site: www.hardwiredhumans.com
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