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The Importance of Clear Signals at Work

When Commissioner Gordon and Batman came to an understanding about the Dark Knight’s unofficial (but valued) services to the city of Gotham, they set up a simple, unambiguous bat-signal. When that beam of light and the hovering bat silhouette appeared in the sky, Batman knew he was needed immediately.

In the workplace, unfortunately, signals are often much less clear. Here are three ways that signals often get muddied at work.

The Indirect Ask

Have you ever been guilty of an indirect ask? The indirect ask happens when someone makes a comment in hopes that it will generate a specific result, without clearly stating that result. Much like Commissioner Gordon saying; “So, Batman, if we flash the Bat-signal it means we’re facing a rise in criminal activity.” And leaving it at that.

Here are a couple of examples of the indirect ask and some possible underlying meanings. Of course, in each case the real ask could be something else entirely, which is why this type of communication at work is so frustrating.

Indirect ask:

  • Wow, I’m really spread thin right now!

Possible real ask:

  • Please assign the next task to someone else.
  • Am I getting a raise in the next review cycle?
  • Could you give me some help with this?
  • Can I get an additional resource to support me on this project?

Indirect ask:

  • It’s important that this gets done.

Possible real ask:

  • Please complete this immediately as it’s both urgent and critical to business success.
  • This is important but not urgent. Make sure it’s completed by the end of the month.
  • This is important to me personally and I’d appreciate it if you could get it done as soon as your schedule allows.

Indirect ask:

  • This office could use some training in lunchroom etiquette.

Possible real ask:

  • At our next staff meeting could we address the issue of moldy food in the fridge?
  • How can we stop the food fights in the lunchroom?
  • Can we get some training about eating and food etiquette across different cultures?

The next time you’re tempted to throw out an indirect asks, stop and think about what you really want to say, and then say it. Commenting that you’re a little overloaded is not the same as asking for help. A passing remark about a missed meeting is not the same as requesting someone’s presence at the next one.

If you’re on the receiving end of an indirect ask, request more information. Make it clear that you’re not sure exactly what the speaker is looking for and need them to clarify.

Mixed Messages

Another common source of fuzzy signals in the workplace is the mixed message. Mixed messages typically result when:

  1. What people say conflicts with what they said previously.
  2. What people do conflicts with what they did previously.
  3. What people say conflicts with what they do.
  4. What people say conflicts with their body language (or tone of voice).

Mixed messages usually make people feel confused and uncomfortable, even when they’re not consciously aware of the source of their discomfort. This is especially true when the mixed message is caused by conflicting words and body language because people often interpret body language intuitively without being aware of it.

If you’re the person who opens the floor for questions and then crosses her arms across her chest—be aware that you’re likely sending mixed messages. In this case, if you don’t want to take questions, don’t offer the option. If you do, reinforce that intent with open and relaxed body language.

When you receive mixed messages, reflect back the different messages you’ve heard and observed and the apparent contradiction you sense. Share your confusion as well as your desire to better understand the intended meaning. Avoid attacking or blaming as many mixed messages are transmitted unintentionally.

Double Bind

The most insidious of unclear signals, the double bind, occurs when someone receives two or more conflicting messages that negate each other. In other words, responding successfully to one message results in a failed response to the other message (and vice versa). Essentially, the person caught in the double bind can’t win for losing and will automatically be wrong regardless of response.

Here are some common double binds you might have experienced (or perpetrated!) at work:

  • Be creative, and do things the way I would do them.
  • Think for yourselves, and adhere to these rules.
  • We require honest feedback, and fire whistle blowers.

Getting caught in this kind of paradoxical game where contradictory rules make it impossible to win is one of the most demotivating things that can happen to an employee. So, if you’re in the habit of putting your team in this kind of double bind, stop now and ask them to let you know if you inadvertently do it again.

As an employee, the best thing you can do when faced with this situation is point out the contradiction to your supervisor and ask for clarification. If that approach is not successful, there may be little recourse aside from stepping back and strengthening your double bind coping skills.

Maximize the Signal, Minimize the Noise

In science and engineering, the concept of a signal-to-noise ratio is used to compare the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise. The higher the ratio, the clearer the signal. When background noise gets too high, the signal becomes unclear or gets lost altogether. In the workplace, indirect asks, mixed signals and double binds all crank up the background noise and drown out the intended message. This leaves everyone confused, frustrated and unproductive—all for the lack of a clear signal. To maximize the signal and minimize the noise in your workplace, exchange indirect asks, mixed signals and double binds for clear, unambiguous messages.


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