Leadership Principle #7 – Keep Your Team Informed

“The greatest obstacle to communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”  Ironically, while this observation is popularly attributed to George Bernard Shaw, there is actually scant evidence to support that belief.  This makes it doubly appropriate for us this week.

Whether your organizational culture is very “top down” or highly networked, one of the fundamental tasks of a leader is to ensure that their team has the information that they need to do their work well.  I was once part of an organization that was going through a massive transformation. The senior leadership, to their credit, were putting a tremendous effort into internal communications to ensure that all members of the organization understood what was going to happen, how it would happen and how it would affect employees.  The result of this laudable effort?  The following year the annual employee engagement survey reported that staff actually felt less well-informed than they had the year before the transformation began.  As someone may have said once, the art of communication lies in reducing the difference between what I think that I said and what you think that you heard.  The “Ladder of Inference” can be a very useful tool in bridging that gap.  OK, the metaphors are at right angles, but bear with me.


The “Ladder of Inference”, developed by Chris Argyris and popularized by Peter Senge, describes the unconscious mental process that we all go through all of the time.  Our brains are continually flooded with a fire hose of information from our senses, far more than can actually be attended to.  To cope with this tsunami, our brain selects what data it will pay attention to.  This filtering process is partly “hard wired” and partly the product of our own cognitive/emotional/social/cultural experiences.  As a result, the data that gets through the filter is already charged with meaning that we have attributed to it – that’s why it got through the filter in the first place.  Based on that data we then draw conclusions, which drive our beliefs and actions.  What we often forget, however, is that this process has a feedback loop.  The conclusions and beliefs that we adopt “at the top of the ladder” affect the “filter settings” that determine what data gets considered.  As a result, we can actually stop being aware of things that do not align with the beliefs that we have acquired as a result of our cognitive/emotional/social/cultural experiences.  Sound familiar?  In the case of the organization in transformation, employees were interpreting the messages from senior management “through the lens” of their previous experiences.  Twenty years before, a broadly similar initiative had been the precursor to massive and unexpected layoffs.  As a result, there was a “cultural filter”among employees that said that large-scale reorganizations meant pink slips.  End of story.  No matter how many times the message was passed “there will be no layoffs”, it got filtered out.  To make matters worse, the message of no layoffs began, in some circles, to be seen as evidence that the pink slips would be coming out any day.

Moving people “down the ladder” is a challenging leadership problem, made more difficult by the fact that the leader needs first to “come down their own ladder.”  I have a mixed record of success in this area, but I have found the following to be helpful:

  1. Come Down My Own Ladder.  Ask myself:  what is valid data and what is my interpretation of it.  Valid data: Sally and Steve were late again for the project update meeting.  Interpretation: They don’t care about this project.
  2. Say It Out Loud.  Introduce your team to the Ladder of Inference if they aren’t already familiar with it.  Speak candidly about how it is working for you in a situation that is relevant to all of you.  “Sally and Steve, I’ve noticed that you have been late for the last three project update meetings.  My assumption is that you could get here on time if you wanted to and as a result I’m getting concerned that you and your teams aren’t going to follow through on your commitments to this project.
  3. Open the Door For Dialogue.   This is the critical step.  To open the door to dialogue (as opposed to anger or defensiveness) you need to make it clear that you are open to the possibility of being wrong.  “Sally and Steve, I realize that my assumptions could well be wrong.  I’m not leaping to conclusions, I just wanted to express my fears.  Please help me to understand what is going on from your perspective.”
  4. Be Willing to Change Your “Filters”.  OK, maybe this step is even more important.  The point of this exercise is not to convince everyone else of your rightness.  It’s to jointly look at what is really happening and to make better decisions on that basis.  That means that everyone, even you, needs to be willing to adjust they way they are interpreting things.

To paraphrase a leadership mentor of mine: “accurate communication is the greatest challenge a leader faces”.  What’s working for you in this area? What difficulties are you facing?  Let’s talk about it!