Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 48;   November 29, 2006: The True Costs of Indirectness

The True Costs of Indirectness

by

Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.

Trish felt they'd been waiting too long for the elevator, and there were now so many people waiting that the ride would be crowded. She turned to George. "Stairs?" He nodded and off they went.

Ancient stairs at ruins in Cambodia

Ancient stairs at ruins in Cambodia.
Photo by Bill Kirksey.

In the empty stairwell, walking down the three floors to the coffee shop, George asked, "What do you think he meant by 'I hope everyone gets their projections in on time.'?"

"Probably Marigold was late again," Trish answered. "Or maybe Diamond. Somebody."

George grew concerned. "Yeah, there'll be real trouble for anybody who's late this time. How does it look for us?"

"Not good," Trish said. She stopped on the landing. "We'll have to rearrange things if we want to avoid trouble."

George and Trish are reordering priorities to avoid a problem that might exist, if they're parsing their director's words correctly. Maybe they're right, but their conclusion is based on their guess that the director is communicating indirectly, and that the real message is cloaked in innocent-sounding language.

Indirect communication
causes problems that
increase costs, create
confusion, and
cause delays
This kind of possibly unnecessary adjustment adds delays to our projects, costs to our operations, suspicion to the atmosphere, conflict to our relationships and stress to our lives. Indirectness can often be a tool in destructive conflict, and it can be dangerous even when its user means well. Here are some of the ways indirect communication can cause problems that increase costs and time to market.

Muddying the message
To make messages indirect, we often disguise them. For instance, we might want to say, "Jim, if your report is late again this week, we might lose funding for this project." To avoid confrontation, we might instead say, "I hope everyone gets their reports in on time." When we think we're receiving an indirect message, we often need additional information to be certain of the real message.
Leaving room for the imagination
When we receive ambiguous or incomplete information, we tend to make up what we don't know. By compelling people to guess, we enhance the risk that people might choose incorrect interpretations.
Increased costs
Because of the ambiguity of indirectness, recipients have choices. They might ignore a message thinking it wasn't intended for them; or they might miss it altogether; or they might interpret it in novel ways. All of these possibilities can increase costs through rework, unnecessary work, confusion, more and longer meetings, increased interpersonal and organizational conflict and delay.
Setting expectations
Once a pattern of indirectness is established, people expect ambiguity. They search for multiple meanings because they don't want to be surprised. And when they search, they find. This leads to what some call "over-interpretation" or "reading too much into it." Once people find alternate interpretations, they raise questions to resolve their confusion. And senders tend to view these questions with suspicion, which leads them to ever-increasing indirectness.

Indirectness might avoid conflict today, but it often spreads conflict tomorrow. A better approach is to resolve today's conflict, rather than avoiding it through indirectness. Still, indirectness does have its place, as we'll see next time. Go to top Top  Next issue: Using Indirectness at Work  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenkjLrnNhltiQofZnFner@ChacqyTUJxWkmNQKQgwxoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Tugboats workingBecome a Tugboat Captain
If your job responsibilities sometimes require that you tell powerful people that they must do something differently, you could find yourself in danger from time to time. You can learn a lot from tugboat captains.
Sun doing a loop-de-loopA Message Is Only a Message
When we receive messages of disapproval, we sometimes feel bad. And when we do, it can help to remember that we have the freedom to decide whether or not to accept the messages we receive.
Tenacious under full sailThe Solving Lamp Is Lit
We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
The giant sequoiaThe Good, the Bad, and the Complicated
In fiction and movies, the world is often simple. There's a protagonist, a goal, and a series of obstacles. The protagonists and goals are good, and the obstacles are bad. Real life is more complicated.
Lake Chaubunagungamaug signDeciding to Change: Trusting
When organizations change by choice, people who are included in the decision process understand the issues. Whether they agree with the decision or not, they participate in the decision in some way. But not everyone is included in the process. What about those who are excluded?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityComing August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinAnd on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenVKuBRIsXkVWDMBrAner@ChaczOAezfSIlzNRSdcwoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.