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The James B. Rieley Column

James B. RieleyIt is well recognized that we often don’t hear what is intended in verbal or written communications. What we hear is often clouded by our mental models about the person who is doing the communication, or by what our expectations about the communication are.

It should also be recognized that the absence of communications can cause people to "fill in the blanks" with their own beliefs and assumptions. This dynamic can lead to disastrous consequences for an organization.

A couple of good examples of this can be found if you work for an organization that is about to be acquired by another one, or if your company is in the midst of management-union negotiations.

The situation is that you know things are taking place, and you assume that what is being discussed could impact your job. But even though you are desperate to know exactly what is taking place, you hear little or nothing in communications. What happens can be described by using the ladder of inference.

figure 1: the ladder of inference

(Plain Talk about Business Performance, Issue 2008.44).

The observable data includes the fact that you know something is going on, and the data you select is the lack of communications. From this point you begin to add meaning, and, in this example, the meaning that surfaces is that the reason you are not hearing anything from management is that the news will not be good, otherwise they would say something.

You begin to make assumptions, which could include that this "bad news" may comprise massive job cuts, or in the case of union negotiations, massive losses in current contractual agreements. You draw conclusions about these assumptions, which could include that the news is so bad that management doesn’t trust the employees enough to let them know. The beliefs that often accompany these conclusions are centred on "if management doesn’t trust us, how we can trust them?"

This is a crucial point for understanding. If employees begin to not trust management, (the adopted belief based on the attached meanings, assumptions made, and conclusions drawn), then it is easy to see how any and all future communications (or lack of them) will be suspect or discounted completely as misleading, incomplete, or false.

Additionally, as soon as trust ebbs away, the actions that are taken include reduced motivation, lack of commitment, and a feeling of malaise on the part of those experiencing the effects of the ladder. Reduced motivation, lack of commitment, and a feeling of malaise means that management will find it difficult to enlist support for just about any initiatives it needs to drive in the future. In short, they will be in trouble.

Senior managers need to understand that they have the ability to avoid the effects of this dynamic. And more importantly, they need to understand that to avoid the dynamics, all they have to do is communicate. Now in all fairness, often during an acquisition or union negotiations, there are things taking place that are highly confidential, and exposing them could have equally serious effects. But the point is that, although some things are confidential, it does not mean that employees should be kept completely in the dark about what is going on.

Often, this means issuing communications that include messages such as, "as you all know, we are in the midst of (whatever is going on), and because some of these conversations need to be confidential for now, we cannot talk about everything. But we do want to let you know that (followed by what can be shared)." This type of message will not preclude some employees from still feeling that they are being held hostage to the events around them, but at least, they will not find themselves totally shutout of communications.

It has been often said that there are two types of news, good news and bad news. Management needs to recognize that, for employees, the worst news is not receiving any news at all. When this happens, employees will simply fill in the blanks with their own beliefs and assumptions, and that rarely is a good thing.

January 2010.

The James B. Rieley Column is a new monthly feature on Emerald Management First.

James B. Rieley advises senior leadership teams from all sectors of business and industry, higher education, and government, and has written extensively on the subject of improving organizational performance through leadership development.

As the CEO of a manufacturing company in the United States, he demonstrated an ability to innovate and create environments in which employees could be successful. He is able to draw on over 30 years in business, both as senior management and as a consultant to management with organizations such as BP, Shell and Philips. His work has been published in The Journal for Organisational Excellence, Quality Progress, The Systems Thinker, National Productivity Review, The Business Journal, Leverage, and On The Horizon amongst many others.

He can be contacted at [email protected] and via his website at

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