My dad laughs as he tells this story. After hours of analysis in English classes where he and the other students had scoured each line of text for its hidden, deeper meaning, it turns out the poet meant exactly what he said. Nothing was intended between the lines.
Whether you know it or not, this same analysis occurs in your organization every day. Or at least it does if you haven't built a culture of open communication and trust. Reading behind the lines is a learned behavior. English students learn it in class. Employees learn it on the job.
If you want your memo interpreted exactly as it was written, here are a few tips.
- Know the organization's vocab history - In last year's memo, did "restructuring" mean work was shifted around, a reorganization, or actual staff reductions? If it meant layoffs even one time, it will always be so for those who lived it in your organization, and that's what they will read between the lines next time they see that word. Chose your words carefully so that they match your intentions and aren't misconstrued due to past history.
- Don't forget what you've already said - Make sure your communications refer back to prior messages. Call it out if something has changed and explain why. Failure to connect the dots causes suspicion and confusion.
- Maintain an active dialogue with your team - Whether you're the CEO or a front line supervisor, you need to be in an on-going two-way conversation with your team. Group discussions allow people hear information at the same time and with the same words. The team is less likely to make assumptions about what you write or say if they have up-to-date data and a chance to ask questions on a regular basis.
- Don't shy away from sharing bad news - Increasingly, employee feedback indicates that they want to hear both the good news and the bad from their leadership. It's an opportunity to educate the whole team on the challenges of running a business and let them participate in finding the solutions. If they know they'll hear both sides of the story, they don't have to go looking for the secret meaning of each memo. They'll trust that you're going to tell them what they need to know, good and bad.
- Keep your influencers in the loop - Make sure your non-management influencers (the subject matter experts, the senior team members, the change agents) are informed early on so they can assist you in shutting down or redirecting misconceptions at the water cooler. People listen to their peers, especially those they trust and look up to.
- Write to the level of your audience - Leave the eloquent language to the poets. Your messages should be clear, using the language of the reader. Employees think you're hiding something when you don't say it straight out.