Mixed messages in business


 Organizational life becomes more complex as you rise through the ranks in management. New stakeholders are constantly introduced into the mix. Company strategy needs to constantly evolve. For example, a new technology can disrupt the business environment and threaten a previously robust business model. We work in constant flux these days. One area where I really struggled earlier in my career was “translating” the mixed messages that seem rampant in corporate life. How many times have you left a meeting where many in the the audience don’t understand the message communicated? Even worse sometimes it seems evident the company is not moving towards the publicized lofty principles or values. Why is this not discussed?

Many times the people who get ahead are those willing to see past their organizations failings and try to make things better. Some become overly political to get ahead. Others give up. Their negative sentiment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bold aspirations are rarely met so why even bother goes the thinking? Even worse, some actively block their peers that really are trying to change things for the better. Employees become cynical when they see values or objectives heavily promoted one day only to be sacrificed at the altar of expediency and commercial reality shortly afterward. The problem worsens when these sacrifices become the norm and confirm cynical employee’s  prejudices. Mixed messages are very challenging to defend as a manager.

In a recent conversation with fellow students in my MBA program we devised a list of some mixed messages we have experienced in our careers to date. Here is the list in no particular order.

Provide an estimate: You made a commitment.

Quality is Number 1: We must hit the release date no matter what.

I don’t care about the numbers: Lots of (senior) eyeballs are looking at these reports.

Accelerate the project: We will invest in outsourced teams unfamiliar with the product to do this.

The team decides: Except when public commitments are announced on their behalf.  

We need to involve frontline managers in strategy:  Frontline management can’t make basic operational decisions around merit increases, hiring or firing.

Get the issues out on the table: Don’t make your superiors look bad.

The company is profitable: We need to reinvent ourselves or face terminal decline.

We are all one team: Company politics dictate that…

It is vital everyone understands the company’s strategy: Employees can’t be trusted with confidential information.

We have a pay for performance culture: There is practically no difference in merit increases for high performers compared to other employees.

We need to hear creative ideas: There is no capacity available to implement your new ideas.

The company cannot afford to pay merit increases: The company continues to increase dividend payments to shareholders.

We are one big team. We must defend ourselves against opponents determined to kill our project.

We need everyone on the same page: Don’t share updates that will mess with the “plan”.

This new system will make us more efficient: We need to hire more people because the system is so difficult to use.

Delivering an amazing customer experience is our competitive advantage: There is no bandwidth to correct existing defects reported by our customers.

Can you remain positive, see positive intent in an ambiguous and complex environment ? Can you make sense of these competing tensions in business to your employees and peers? Can you remain authentic, be courageous and respectful? Can you avoid being fired or avoid corporate landmines? If you can answer yes to most of these questions you could enjoy a very rewarding career in management.

Any other mixed messages that you can think of?

One response

  1. I need you to focus on this project and this project only. Where is everything else at?

    I need you to take charge. Don’t send that to the board without letting me see it first

    We need to be more progressive. We’re too conservative to be first-movers

    This is a ‘fire-fighting’ environment. We need to be proactive

    My personal favourite: ‘We need to prepare for the unexpected’. As opposed to ‘Lets prepare for expected and/or potential scenarios that could jeopardise the project and put contingency plans in place.’

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