Prevent conflicting messages

Don’t pretend that contradictions in your organization’s messages don’t exist. Discuss the undiscussable


Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

We’re all a little bit crazy—and at some point, most managers have certainly felt that way about their subordinates. But maybe you’re the one driving them nuts. Are you presenting them with a double bind—that is, asking them to behave simultaneously in contradictory ways?

Organizations today routinely tell people to “Be empowered and innovative. Take risks”; while demanding at the same time “make plan, and deliver on all your commitments”. If you think this drives people crazy, you’re right. So what can you do to help keep your people sane?

First, don’t pretend that this conflict doesn’t exist. Chris Argyris, professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School, has described the sequence of events that happens when you fail to do so. Organizations craft messages that contain ambiguities or inconsistencies. They then instill craziness by acting as if the messages were not inconsistent. Finally, they seal the whole thing up by making the ambiguity or inconsistency in the message undiscussable, and top it off with making this undiscussability undiscussable, too.

Argyris pointed out that the problem is not that people cannot deal with conflicting messages; they do it all the time. Mom says one thing and Dad contradicts. But it’s bad news when the “powers-that-be” pretend that their messages are not in conflict and effectively pre-empt any discussion of the matter. Second, acknowledge that when people on your team act frustrated, confused, or hesitant there is a good chance that this double bind is at the root.

The remedy is simple. Discuss the undiscussable. Bring it right out into the open without any expectation that the original mixed message will change, because it probably won’t, at least in the near future. The good news is that it doesn’t have to. If people talk and laugh about it, even if only with friendly colleagues and especially their boss, it will go far in creating psychological freedom. Even if your subordinates and entrepreneurs inside don’t talk about it a lot, just the awareness of these mental structures will leave people less frustrated.

You can even let people know you feel the same way. You can laugh about it, too. It means a lot to your subordinate to know you understand the situation the same way he does. Once you’re talking about it, you may even find other creative ways of helping them navigate the bind. Even if you fail, the discussions will naturally lead to increased confidence and sure-footedness.

So, change the mixed messages at the local level whenever you can, and help the higher-ups see the effects of these messages on the ground. While you can render the double bind impotent, changing the originating mixed message is another thing altogether. But have heart. Surfacing and discussing structures like these is probably the single most important first step to effecting systemic change.

Any double bind inevitably means people live in a world of some discomfort. If you or your co-workers are frustrated, confused or reticent you might point out to them the inherent difficulty of being told both to do something and not do it at the same time! It’s pretty hard to find behaviour that meets both instructions. Ask them what they might do with this situation. You can never tell what you might learn and you will certainly deepen your rapport with them.

Len Schlesinger is Baker Foundation professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School where he teaches general management.

Charlie Kiefer teaches corporate entrepreneurship at the Sloan School of Management, MIT.

©2015 Harvard Business School. All rights reserved.

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