Exceptions Almighty – the Art of Corporate Miscommunication
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Exceptions Almighty – the Art of Corporate Miscommunication

  Rabih Rizk | Management Consultant

  14th March, 2019

Not recommended for altruists and human rights advocates!

People seem to have selective attention. They tend to notice only what they want: mainly what they feel is wrong or doesn’t fit their preconceptions or standards. You can tell this is true simply by asking two people to describe the same incident. You will most probably hear two different stories.

People also seem to have selective memory. They tend to remember only what suits their needs and serves their purpose: usually their own successes, no matter how few, and other people’s failures, regardless of how minor. This is what we call the black-spot-on-white-shirt syndrome.

So, people have selective attention and selective memory. How does that relate to corporate communication? Well, organizations invest enormous amounts of money, time and effort to build systems, create policies, and foster high performance cultures to make sure rules are effectively communicated and observed by all employees. Unfortunately, we all have a built-in radar which is hypersensitive to ‘exceptions’ (when deeds and words are not aligned) and all this investment risks going down the drain if a single exception gets noticed:

  • One underperforming employee who is not held accountable will destroy a whole performance management system.
  • One act of mercy towards an employee who shows a lack of integrity will jeopardize a culture that took years to build, and grant unofficial permissions for others to do the same.
  • One display of favoritism by management is enough to assassinate internal equity and label company leadership as unfair.

Exceptions in actions are a powerful miscommunication tool because people have a predisposition to see, analyze, and draw negative conclusions about them. These exceptions are the cause to three types of sarcastic jokes that employees use to make fun of the inconsistencies of management communication. What I mean by ‘joke’ here, is a story told sarcastically by one employee, shared massively below the radar, remembered and laughed at for long by everyone, and shared immediately with newcomers.

Joke 1 – The top performer joke

You certainly remember that one serious student who asks questions in class, sits in the front row, takes notes seriously, and is certain to get good grades. Classmates always criticize such behavior, calling it nerdy and unworthy. This serious student will feel awfully bad when he or she fails to get a good job and his or her well connected classmate lands a dream job in a great workplace. We all know of a similarly hardworking colleague who became utterly frustrated when the promotion he should have earned was given to the boss’s best friend.

Miscommunicated Lesson: Time spent appealing to your boss is more important than your performance.

Joke 2 – The role model joke

On the first day of the business year, the manager invites the team for a meeting to communicate goals, aspirations, standards, and explain how the new company systems will boost the performance of the team and give each one of us an equal opportunity to shine. The manager also stresses his or her commitment to being a role model.

Colleagues who have been there for a while have memorized this speech over the years and shake their heads in despair. Later that day, they tell the new guys that they are fed up with such unrealistic promises. In fact, the older colleagues do not believe that their manager is a good role model. Why? It may be that the manager lost his or her temper at some point during a mid-year review a few years ago, and said regrettable things. But employees still remember the incident. One day, when the manager blames an employee for losing his temper, the employee reminds the manager about that incident.

Miscommunicated Lesson: I am allowed to make my manager’s mistake.

Joke 3 – The poster joke

The company has just finished rebranding its offices and common areas with marvelous posters displaying values, culture, and a highly compelling vision for the future of the business. “Innovation – all ideas are welcomed, no matter how crazy!” one poster says. When newcomer Jenny slips a suggestion inside the innovation box by the cafeteria door, she sees people laughing discretely. Three month later, not having yet received any feedback on her suggestion, Jenny laughs at newcomer Jack who just dropped his suggestion in the box.

Miscommunicated Lesson: Posters are only for decoration.

We are not robots. Exceptions may be unavoidable, but are they curable?