Houston, We Have a Challenge

Raise your hand if “integrity” is one of your company’s official values. Or maybe “honest” “candid” or “open” communications are on the list?

Why is it, then, that internal communications are so often dishonest? I don’t mean the outright-lying kind of dishonesty, although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that that goes on in some organizations. I’m talking about your beating-around-the-proverbial-bush, euphemism-spouting sort of dishonesty.

This is the kind of dishonesty that thinks words like “problem,” “bad,” and “weakness” are profanities—never, under any circumstances, to be used in civil company. This is the sort of dishonesty that throws around words like “redundancy” and “right-size,” or that makes managers say things like: “That’s a great idea and [insert statement making it clear your idea will go absolutely nowhere].” That’s right: the sort of dishonesty that categorizes “but” as a dirty word.

Where does this fear of  “negative” words come from?  

For some, it appears to be a kind of magical thinking: if we say things are bad, they will become so—and conversely, if we pretend things are better than they really are, maybe they’ll get better. Others apparently believe negative words are too scary: write or say anything too negative and your audience will become so upset that your intended message will fly right past, unnoticed.

I don’t mean to mock these ideas. A lot of careful psychological research has gone into findings about the power of optimism and about how people hear or don’t hear what we have to tell them.

The problem is, whether or not there is some truth to these theories, there exists something a lot scarier than the unvarnished truth. And that’s dishonesty. Because when you use words dishonestly, here are just a few of the barriers to communication you start nailing into place:

  • You put a chink in your credibility. Do this enough times and you might as well give up on getting anyone’s attention, ever again. (If there’s no fable called, “The Boy Who Cried ‘No Layoffs Coming,’” there ought to be.)
  • Your message loses its point. Think of it this way: if you’ve sugarcoated a potential disaster, why would employees shift into “urgent” mode to address it?
  • You lose certain otherwise-useful words, wed forever to their euphemistic meaning. No, I don’t think anybody will miss “right-size”—which wasn’t even a word in the first place. But what about “challenge” and “redundant,” for example? These words have perfectly good, useful meanings already. If you colonize them to mean something else, you could find yourself without a good word when you need it.
  • You condescend to your reader. This is a topic worthy of a post in itself, so I won’t go into it in great detail here, but just think how much better a response you’re likely to get from employees if you treat them like the adults they are.
  • You risk confusion: “What, exactly does it mean when you say you really like my idea and you have no intention of using it?” Or (worse): “What do you mean you’re firing me for lousy work? Last I heard, we were talking about all my ‘opportunities for improvement.””

I’m not saying that your messages to employees when bad news strikes should be missives of doom.

You can put things in a positive light by pointing to the actual  positives involved—and there is nearly always a positive. You can emphasize everything the company is doing to mitigate the current damage and to prevent bad things from happening in the future. You can highlight the goals of whatever action you might be asking employees to take, and linger on how good it will feel to reach those goals.

You can create a mood with words, and you should think about what mood you are creating. But don’t do this by using words dishonestly. Because if you do, you’re doing a disservice to your employees, your company and the entire English language.

Have you seen an example dishonest internal communications? Comment below! 

Need help with a communication? Contact me to get it done.

Want to read more? Click “follow” to keep track of future posts. It’s busy season here at Robin Hardman Communications, but I squeak in a post whenever I can.


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