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The mixed messages you’re sending employees

Tom was a new sales support manager who’d been in the role for about a month. One of his employees, Rhonda, was quite a sensitive person, and although she’d been in the job three years and knew the role well, Tom felt she needed to be more forceful and decisive when dealing with the company’s sales representatives (who at times could be quite forceful themselves). For her part, Rhonda felt that quiet communication was more her personal style, and believed it had worked well for her. Though Tom didn’t say much about it, he was growing increasingly frustrated.

One day Tom decided that “enough was enough” and he needed to be more authoritative with Rhonda. “I’ve had it with your passive, quiet way of dealing with our sales reps,” he told Rhonda bluntly (and a little loudly), “you need to step it up and be more assertive. That’s all there is to it. We need to have everyone on board with the way I want things done around here!”

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Rhonda didn’t say anything to defend herself, which Tom took as a sign that she agreed with him. With her head down, she walked slowly back to her desk.

Well, that went really well, Tom thought to himself. I should have done that sooner. At last Rhonda knows what my expectations are. Looks like that solved the problem!

But Rhonda had a very different reaction to the encounter.

I can’t believe it, Rhonda thought to herself, once she was back at her desk and had control of her emotions. I can’t believe Tom barked at me like that! That came out of nowhere. Maybe I better start looking for a new job. I don’t think Tom is the kind of person I want to work for.

30% of employees are fully engaged or emotionally committed to their organizations.

Misreading a situation

Over the course of decades in management I saw this and other such scenes played out numerous times in various forms. Simply put, messages sent by managers were not always received by employees….At least not in the way they were intended to be.

In this instance, Tom, the manager, wanted to convey that a behavioral change was needed. But the message he actually sent was that he was a hothead with poor people-skills. He thought he’d solved the problem, but instead he just created a bigger one: loss of loyalty from a good employee.

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The reality is, these sort of disconnected situations are by no means uncommon in the workplace. In a management environment where statistics consistently show that only around 30% of employees are fully engaged or emotionally committed to their organizations, there are ample signs that managers go off-message:

  • What is said by one person is often not what’s understood by another.
  • An assignment that may seem clear to a manager may not be at all clear to the employee receiving it.
  • Feedback that feels on-the-mark to a manager may feel inaccurate to the employee getting it.

The everyday world of business is full of crossed signals. Often the issue boils down to self-awareness. Is a manager clearly attuned to the way he or she is coming across to others?

Clarity is always a key element of successful management.

The role of self-awareness

In the case described at the outset (an incident I observed early in my career, though names have been changed), Tom, an inexperienced manager, had very little awareness of how he was coming across to Rhonda, and very little idea how his message was being received. With a predictably unproductive outcome.

How big a problem is lack of self-awareness in management? It’s very substantial, says Dr. Tasha Eurich, author of Insight, an examination of how self-awareness can impact one’s life and career. Eurich notes that only around 10% to 15% of the overall population is highly self-aware, and there’s nothing to suggest that management is unusual in this regard.

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Eurich’s data-driven assessment is fully consistent with my own intuitive conclusions as a longtime manager. In the best of circumstances, management is a complex job. Throw in some self-awareness issues, and the role becomes even more challenging.

Which is why it’s always important for managers to try to be attuned to how employees are receiving the messages they are sending. It can be helpful to have:

  • Diligent follow-up with employees to be sure important communications are accurately understood.
  • Numerous kinds of candid, accurate feedback as to how one is coming across to others.
  • Thoughtful (metrically-based if possible) evaluations on how effectively one is attaining the results he or she is expected to.

Clarity is always a key element of successful management. The best managers are invariably thoughtful about the messages they send, and take care that their communiques are on the mark.


Steve is the brand manager at PI. He successfully avoided art school but fell into design anyway.

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