Management Communications: Are You a Filter or Conduit?

Passing communications down from Senior Management on to your team in times of difficulty and organizational stress is both a challenge and an opportunity for leadership. Sometimes communicating the message verbatim may be counter-productive to accomplishment of the desired results. I share some personal examples of situations that required some modification in the message to optimize their constructive effects. Please take the following poll, and read on!

There are some Senior Management teams that are so well attuned to the skills of good communications that you can pretty much repeat their messages word-for-word without worry about how they will be interpreted or understood. However, they are few and far between and so a good leader must be able to "interpret" the message and frame it in the best possible way to most benefit his/her team, and the organization. Often, whether because of the style, innate characteristics or idiosyncrasies of the executive, or the emotional stress of the situation, messages have an unnecessary or unconstructive edge to them. I had a Business Unit VP that, when talking about the year's very restricted merit pay increase plan, wanted the group to know that "if you don't get a raise you should start looking for another job!" In another situation, our Division SVP was fond of preceding his comments with "I'm going to be brutally honest." In both these cases, I chose to filter out the emotional content, which didn't add to the effectiveness of the messages. Sometimes you'll find that Senior Management communications are too factual and unemotional, and that the message lacks any positive or inspiring content, and would not "motivate the troops" in any significant way. One boss I had was so flat-lined, his response to any recommended action or project was "I have no problem with that." When I took this "approval" back to my team, I basically shortened that message to "he said yes" and then used my own words to describe the plans, reasons, benefits, etc. Any of you who answered the poll with either 75% or 100%, my sympathies are with you. When I had many occasions to disagree with the tone of messages I was to deliver, one boss would tell me, "Well, you're the nice one, I'm not." Actually, it has very little with being "nice" and much more with being attuned to how a message is received, and getting the most positive results attainable.

Remember, that whenever you decide to filter the message, you need to balance the often competing objectives of chain of command and authority with maintaining a high performing and enthusiastic team. The desired result from the communication is the most important objective. However, you can find yourself in trouble if you're seen as "changing" the message, to the point of being placing your position at risk if you're seen as misrepresenting or usurping their authority. Some simple guidelines to follow include:

  1. When asked to deliver a problematic message, it is best to question the wording up-front: Is that REALLY what you want to say, sir?
  2. Don't lie, or put specific words in management's mouth that didn't originate there.
  3. Separate the information from the emotion. The former should be passed unfiltered. the latter not necessarily so.
  4. Stress the positives, the path forward, the desired future.
  5. Offer to talk to team members individually if there are concerns that should remain private.
  6. Don't openly criticize the message, as that can lead down the path of insubordination.

What communications challenges have you faced in your career?

This is the fifth post in a multiple-part series entitled Tools and Tips for Successful Management and Leadership

Next up: Gaining Acceptance as a New Supervisor

(C) 2010 Martin Bergstedt, Used by permission.

Water pipe by anataman
Filter diagram by Sarindam7
Tightrope by Alexander P Kapp


Robert S's picture

I agreed with the disconnect comment. Also, there is sometimes a problem with actions matching the words. Personally, I have a harder time with a message that I don't see followed through than one that might be "harsh". I don't read too much into the emotions or speculations, but I like to see concrete follow through on stated goals or objectives. Goals and initiatives are announced, but resources are not supplied. It takes credibility away from subsequent messages.

mbergstedt's picture

100% agreed. The old saw that "Actions speak louder than words" is still true! Marty

Aurian's picture

Great post Martin, and Robert is right on with his comment about follow-through. The most carefully tailored and delivered message means nothing without substance behind it. The point from the post which rings most true to me right now is the common need to add some enthusiasm to the message. There seems to be some reticence to managerial enthusiasm (which could possibly be backed by the fear of having employees take advantage of that emotion down the road). This often leads to less buy-in, even if the idea is beneficial for all involved.

mbergstedt's picture

Yes. Luckily, this is often the easiest of the communication challenges to deal with. Marty

Rich Byrnes's picture

Indeed "filtering" messages from above is a very tricky business as the tight rope walker picture suggest. Martin, I like the six step approach, as it is very critical to ensure the delivered message does not become disconnected from the original intent. I would add in step #3 if you remove what one feels is "emotion" from "information", that you clearly review this with your boss by pointing out what you consider to be emotion and letting the boss know how you plan to present the message, get the boss' buy in. Let's face it, all humans are emotional and respond to emotions. Therefore if emotion is removed from the message, even though the information remains intact, the message itself could be altered. This is the balancing act you refer to. Thanks for the Interesting post, and "unfiltered" message.

mbergstedt's picture

Rich, I agree. It is hard in a short blog to deal with some of the nuances that may challenge us. Like the difference between an emotion that is a key message component, such as urgency or praise from one which may be counter productive such as anger or sarcasm. However, such leadership challenge is why they pay us the "big" bucks, right!? Marty

Rich Byrnes's picture

Marty, I agree it’s hard to capture all nuances in a short blog, however you did an excellent job at stimulating us to explore some of these nuances through these postings. Your point on finding the right emotional aspects to filter out, such as anger or sarcasm is well taken. With my own communications I make a cognitive effort to keep the negative emotions out, however must admit when I don't like the message it is sometimes very hard to do. I appreciate this discussion and see it as a great way to continue improving my leadership skills. Yes, I agree "Big Bucks" should only follow when "Big Challenges" are successfully handled. Rich

mbergstedt's picture

Thanks for the insightful comments. A key in any desire to filter is the separation of fact from any negative emotional component. The facts must come through unaltered, by all means. Marty