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

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? rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.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:

A meetingHow to Make Meetings Worth Attending
Many of us spend seemingly endless hours in meetings that seem dull, ineffective, or even counterproductive. Here are some insights to keep in mind that might help make meetings more worthwhile — and maybe even fun.
The Samuel Morse Telegraph ReceiverRemote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
Three adult male chimpanzees during a grooming sessionFavors, Payback, and Thoughtlessness
Someone at work who isn't particularly a friend or foe has asked you for a favor. What happens if you say no? Do you grant the favor? How do you decide what to do?
Admiral Edward Ratcliffe Garth Russell Evans, first Baron Mountevans of ChelseaGuidelines for Delegation
Mastering the art of delegation can increase your productivity, and help to develop the skills of the people you lead or manage. And it makes them better delegators, too. Here are some guidelines for delegation.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportRisk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A beach at sunsetComing August 4: What Are the Chances: I
When estimating the probabilities of success of different strategies, we must often estimate the probability of multiple events occurring. People make a common mistake when forming such estimates. They assume that events are independent when they are not. Available here and by RSS on August 4.
Main Reading Room of the U.S. Library of CongressAnd on August 11: Many "Stupid" Questions Aren't
Occasionally someone asks a question that causes us to think, "Now that's a stupid question." Rarely is that assessment correct. Knowing what alternative assessments are possible can help us respond more effectively in the moment. Available here and by RSS on August 11.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. 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 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.