Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 49;   December 6, 2006: Using Indirectness at Work

Using Indirectness at Work

by

Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore well-being and comity within the organization.
Lion, ready to spring, in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya

Lion, ready to spring, in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Directness can be somewhat intimidating, especially when it involves direct eye contact.
Photo by Richard A. Muller.

If we were always direct in all our communications, the world would be a boring place — when it wasn't busy being dangerous and explosive. Many cultures (including my own) value directness, but indirectness has its uses, and we'd all benefit if everyone understood better when to use it.

Uses of indirectness abound. For example, consider the question, "How do you like my new haircut?" Even if we customarily lie, we all recognize the evasive reply, "Interesting…"

Here are just some of the uses of indirectness at work.

Deference to authority
Sometimes deference to authority is essential to survival within the organization, especially when conveying criticism. Indirectness can provide a means to surface important information. Yet, in extreme situations, even indirectness can be risky.
Mitigating the risk of offense
Conveying information to someone directly can risk offense, especially in the absence of a request for it. We can mitigate this risk by asking permission to make the offer, as in, "I have something on that, would you like to hear it?" Even then, some risk does remain. An indirect approach can be a less risky way to offer it. For instance, "If you want some background on that, let me know."
Deferring to those in pain
We'd all benefit if
everyone understood better
when to use indirectness
When emotions are raw, and people are hurting, direct approaches are often rejected — if they don't make things even worse. Sometimes it's best to wait for healing, but indirectness can provide a channel for urgent communications.
Maintaining deniability
Sometimes it's necessary to convey information covertly, especially when you work in a politically unsafe environment. Hinting, suggesting, and speaking to be overheard are sometimes used this way. Of course, the lack of safety is fundamental, and it must be addressed, but short-term needs sometimes intervene before you find the long-term solution. Using indirectness for this purpose can be a signal that it's time to either resolve the safety issue or move on.
Preserving or transferring of ownership
When the message recipient must take ownership of the information, delivering the message directly can be problematic. Directness can result in a loss of ownership, or it can interfere with transfer of ownership. Using an indirect approach, such as hinting or speaking to be overheard, leaves the way clear for the recipient to assume ownership.
Leaving space for creativity
Conveying a direct message to problem solvers can bias their process. It can limit their creativity and it can cause them not to examine possibilities that they otherwise would. Indirect suggestions can give them necessary guidance with significantly less risk of biasing or limiting their creative process.

To whatever degree your own culture values indirectness, be assured that in this age of global teams you'll someday encounter someone who considers you overly direct. Prepare for these situations, if you want to be considered polite. Go to top Top  Next issue: Managing Pressure: Communications and Expectations  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? rbrentkgYKzRSAHRCiOUener@ChactdYaSeFrABAEPKnAoCanyon.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 Workplace Politics:

A Julius Caesar coinOn Organizational Coups d'Etat
If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
Muhammad Ali in 1967Rope-A-Dope in Organizational Politics
Mohammed Ali's strategy of "rope-a-dope" has wide application. Here's an example of applying it to workplace politics at the organizational scale.
Folsom Dam, on the American River near Sacramento, CaliforniaHow Did I Come to Be So Overworked?
You're good at your job, but there's just too much of it, and it keeps on coming. Your boss doesn't seem to realize how much work you do. How does this happen?
U.S. Congressman Jim Moran talks with constituents at a meeting on the federal budgetImpasses in Group Decision-Making: III
In group decision-making, impasses can develop. Some are related to the substance of the issue at hand. With some effort, we can usually resolve substantive impasses. But treating nonsubstantive impasses in the same way doesn't work. Here's why.
A meeting of people and their laptopsExploiting Functional Fixedness
Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that creates difficulty in seeing novel uses of things that have familiar uses. Some devious moves in workplace politics exploit functional fixedness.

See also Workplace Politics, Conflict Management and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treatComing June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
A VoiceStation 500 speakerphone by PolycomAnd on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenzIHmkmaDjFBLTZnLner@ChacANGAogeKxDsHTXUgoCanyon.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 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development 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. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. 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
Please donate!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!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
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.