Friday, April 20, 2012

Your Employees Are Reading Between The Lines

Robert Lee Frost was a guest speaker at Syracuse University back in the 50's when my father was doing his undergraduate work.  During the question and answer period, a student asked the famous poet about his meaning of a particular line about the wind, and whether it could be correctly interpreted as having been intended as a metaphor for death.  Mr Frost answered, "No".  He was actually just talking about the wind.  The line had come to him as he was sitting on a high school baseball field, watching an early spring training session.  The wind was blowing.  Spring winds are cold.     

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.
I leave you with a verse from the Robert Frost poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time".  It's a beautifully stated description of what an April day is like here in the Northeast.  No need to read between the lines.  The wind is cold.

“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.”

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