Communication Cues, Clues,
By Dianna Booher
Delayed on a recent trip and sitting in an airline club for a few
hours, I overheard this conversation between three thirty-something
travelers. Amy, Jeanne, and Bill all arrived at the club together,
piled their luggage in the chairs across from me, and began to
unpack their laptops.
Bill offers to go out to buy hamburgers for all three. While he’s
gone, Amy and Jeanne discuss a customer presentation they’ve
evidently just delivered in Chicago. Amy says to Jeanne, “I hate it
when he critiques my presentations. He does that all the time. My
slides. The structure. I don’t think he’s all that good himself.
I thought I did fine today.”
“Yeah, you did great,” Jeanne responds.
Amy leaves to go get a cup of coffee and find a place to charge her
cell phone. Bill returns with the hamburgers and joins Jeanne.
They unwrap their burgers and start eating. Bill gets interrupted
immediately by a cell phone call. When he finishes the
conversation, Jeanne asks, “Was that about the job? Have you decided
who’s going to get the promotion?”
“Yeah. Steve. I’m going to announce it on Monday. He did a
fabulous job today in the meeting. We’re sure to win that
“Amy doesn’t like it when you critique her on her presentations,”
Jeanne says. “She’s intimidated.”
“That’s too bad. She could be so much better—if she got some help
with those skills.”
Jeanne nodded agreement and their conversation moved on to other
topics before Amy rejoined them.
Two things struck me about that snippet of overheard conversation.
1) Jeanne told Amy what she wanted to hear—“You did great.” 2)
Amy had likely missed a promotion because she routinely rejected
feedback from her boss.
Emotional maturity and openness to direct communication without
defensiveness are two traits that are in high demand—but in short
supply. Feedback feels uncomfortable to many people. As long as
face-saving remains the goal and culture, people will face a
dilemma: Shall we be silent and save the relationship? Or
communicate honestly and solve the problem?
It’s become standard operating procedure at the office—people say
what they think others want to hear. And when someone breaks the
mold and speaks candidly, relationships ripple and projects grind to
a halt until someone repairs the damage. That vicious cycle keeps
many organizations locked into mediocrity, and many people stalled
in a dead-end job.
Consider the following communication strategies as a way out of such
a downward spiral and a means to improving your next workplace
Under-Performers the Straight Story: Allowing under-performers
to remain on the payroll is a form of dishonesty that harms the
entire organization. Continuing to pat them on the back and grant
them raises does not square with their own reality. They know their
work does not meet standards and does not match what their
colleagues do. If you don’t tell the truth about how they perform,
how can they trust you to tell them the truth about other things?
Employees know who isn’t pulling their own weight. When they’re all
treated the same and receive the same feedback despite the refrain,
“we reward people based on performance,” they discount other
promises as well. Trust dips even lower.
In short, deal honestly with emotionally immature, defensive
Great Performers Their Props: Some leaders fear complimenting
their star performers. They figure if they tell these stars how
well they’re doing, they may develop their talents and move on.
What’s worse? That they grow and leave—or become discouraged and
leave? Without encouragement, the valued employees may feel that
you don’t care about them and leave to go where somebody cares more
or will encourage them. Great performers need honest feedback as
much as the under-performers.
Up to Your Mistakes When You Miss Your Cues: A business
development manager for a large oil company reported at the
beginning of the year that he was about to close a large gas
contract with a net profit of millions of dollars. When the deal
fell into jeopardy, he couldn’t bring himself to tell his colleagues
that he had overstated the certainty of the deal. At the end of
each quarter, he presented trumped-up, vague explanations about why
the contract still remained unsigned—yet kept insisting that the
deal would close “shortly.” All budgets had been based on his
projections. And when the deal did not happen, the loss of
projected revenues created tidal waves throughout the entire
When people have to admit their own mistakes, admissions often
follow along these lines:
“I was wrong, but so was everybody else.”
“What did you expect—under the circumstances?”
“Well, I’m not at liberty to tell you all the
behind-the-scenes things that happened, but we’re fortunate things
didn’t turn out worse.”
The message: Mumbo-jumbo meant to excuse the speaker’s mistakes or
failures. The attempt at face-saving rather than admission of error
rarely works in the long run. Silent message: Self-protection at
the expense of credibility.
Purposefully unclear communication—with bad intentions or the best
of intentions—can be devastating for both individuals and
organizations. In such cultures, everyone gets along, goes
along—and sinks together. Open communication and emotional
maturity, rather than defensiveness, foster trust and excellence.
Say it—with grace and sensitivity, yes. But say it directly,
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