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How to avoid 'chocolate conversations' at work

Story highlights

  • Employees may have multiple interpretations of leaders' messages about plans and goals
  • Leaders must send realistic messages instead of overly optimistic ones
  • Frequently reiterating goals helps keep everyone on the same page
  • Executives should focus not just on the message but its intended impact

I was once in a company meeting listening to our CEO lay out the annual new direction for the business. After the meeting, we all brought the plan back to our respective teams. As the plan worked its way through team meetings, company newsletters and the like, the original message got lost.

We all had our own interpretation of what we heard. As multiple interpretations of the plan were set in motion, we were left with a lot of unintended outcomes -- and disappointing results. The CEO was frustrated and other leaders were left scratching their heads.

Suddenly, I thought of a "Death by Chocolate" party I went to when in college. We had all gone to that party with a common objective -- bring chocolate, eat chocolate and be happy -- only to be separated by our different interpretations or standards for what constituted "ideal" chocolate.

What happened at that party was happening in our company. Everyone had a different interpretation for what they thought the plan meant and how they would bring it to their teams to implement.

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If a simple concept like chocolate could generate so many different opinions, attitudes and points of view, how many more would occur when a complex strategy was at stake? When images and points of view differ and we can't communicate a consistent message, we wind up with a meltdown: the result isn't what we expected and everyone is disappointed.

    The "chocolate conversation" dilemma is always the same. This has held true throughout my career and with a diverse number of companies I have worked with, from entrepreneurs to global Fortune 500 companies.

    There are three common mistakes that exist in all these organizations:

    Not facing into reality

    Leaders by nature tend to have an optimistic view. Usually it's a compelling worldview: "We will grow" or "We will be best in class." That visionary point of view inspires people to follow. But to people on the front line, dealing with the day to day, it can sometimes feel out of touch with reality.

    One of the toughest balancing acts that leaders face is communicating the optimism of a message and acknowledging the obstacles an organization has to overcome.

    As a leader, ignoring the day-to-day reality and concerns of people can undermine credibility and diminish trust.

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    Cascade communication

    Although town halls, intranets and webinars are in vogue, the main vehicle for communication throughout organizations is the cascade. The problem with the cascade is that the further from the originator of the message you are, the less familiar you are with the context.

    Communication among the top layers in a company may be connected and well understood, but by the time it reaches the front line, the context is missing, and the message is unclear.

    Leaders must practice message discipline — consistently and frequently talking about what is relevant to achieve your goals. Message discipline, strategically used, avoids confusion and drives operational discipline in your organization.

    Communicating without a goal

    How much of your communication achieves its intended impact? What is your intended impact? Is it simply to impart information?

    Most communication starts with a topic list. Worse, it's usually one-sided, the topic list of the communicator not the receiver. You can fix this by getting clear on your goal. Likely you want to frame (or reframe) the way people see the world or to move them to action, or both.

    Knowing that goal, and thinking about what the audience wants, closes the intention impact gap.

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