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

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

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