Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 36;   September 4, 2019: How Messages Get Mixed

How Messages Get Mixed

by

Although most authors of mixed messages don't intend to be confusing, message mixing does happen. One of the most fascinating mixing mechanisms occurs in the mind of the recipient of the message.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other people

Warren, an engineer, is attending a meeting with 14 other people. You can't see the others, because he's attending virtually. The others can see each other because they're attending in person. And they can see Warren's image on their laptops. This kind of asymmetrical arrangement can distort meeting outcomes.

The term mixed message refers to a statement that's internally contradictory or that contradicts another statement from the same party. We also apply the term to statements — verbal or non-verbal — that are unclear or ambiguous enough to allow internally contradictory interpretations. The problem with such statements is not merely that they rarely have the intended effect; the problem is that the effect of mixed messages might be exactly what their authors are trying to avoid or prevent. So if you want to communicate X and the recipient of your mixed message interprets it as not-X, there's a chance that you'll get exactly what you didn't want.

For example, suppose a supervisor announces that henceforth Thursday from 1pm to 5pm will be quiet hours with no meetings. The supervisor would be sending a mixed message by scheduling a regular "short meeting" for Thursday noon and then consistently letting it run past 1pm. Before long, other meetings will be scheduled for the quiet hours, and the quiet hours will gradually fade away.

Mixed messages are far more common than we realize, for two reasons. One is that given a collection of messages, we might not be aware of contradictions among them. That's what happens in the example above, where the actual practice of conducting a meeting contradicts the stated policy banning meetings during the quiet hours.

But a A subtle source of message mixing
is our general unawareness of how
cognitive biases interact to cause
people to generate inherently
contradictory interpretations
of what they see or hear
second and more subtle source of message mixing is our general lack of awareness of how cognitive biases interact to cause people to generate inherently contradictory interpretations of what otherwise seem to be clear and unambiguous statements. And this source of message mixing is the more interesting one, because the message as framed by the sender isn't mixed. The mixing occurs in the mind of the recipient.

Here's an example:

Warren is an engineer with special expertise in cybersecurity. He's a member of a team that meets every Thursday at 10am for about an hour. Although everyone else attends in person, Warren prefers to attend virtually. Lately the team has been encountering controversies that mostly involve cybersecurity, and debates have been energetic. Warren's supervisor, Kate, has repeatedly asked Warren to attend these meetings in person, but he hasn't. Finally, she tells him, by telephone, "Warren, I need you to attend our Thursday meetings in person. And if for some reason you can't, I need you to call me in advance and we'll talk about it."

Seems clear enough. Warren is to attend in person, unless he talks with Kate first, presumably to get a waiver.

But that isn't how Warren hears the message from Kate. What Warren hears is, "I can keep attending remotely if I call Kate first and tell her I'll be remote." Warren thinks this is, "stupid, but hey, I can jump through hoops if that's what she wants."

It could be that Warren is just a rebellious jerk. But another possibility is that two cognitive biases — among the many biases that affect us all — are at the root of Warren's misinterpretation of Kate's message. In this example, two candidate cognitive biases are Confirmation Bias and the Focusing Illusion.

Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to seek information that confirms our preconceptions, while we avoid information that might contradict those preconceptions. It can also cause us to tend to overvalue information supporting our preconceptions, and undervalue information that contradicts them. See "Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I," Point Lookout for November 23, 2011, for more.
The focusing illusion
The focusing illusion is a cognitive bias that leads to attaching too much significance to one feature of an event, a thing, or a situation, and too little significance to other attributes. See "The Focusing Illusion in Organizations," Point Lookout for January 19, 2011, for more.

In the example of Kate and Warren above, Kate's two-part message to Warren is, "attend meetings in person, and if you can't, then call me and we'll talk." But Warren wants very much to attend meetings virtually. When he hears Kate's two-part message, the focusing illusion causes him to focus on the part of the message he likes: "if you can't, then call me and we'll talk."

Warren's confirmation bias tends to lead him to seek interpretations he likes, and to avoid interpretations he doesn't like. So "call me and we'll talk," suggests to Warren that there will be an opportunity for Warren to defend his request to attend the meeting virtually. He doesn't include in his considerations other interpretations, such as a conversation about his unconstructive attitude or his substandard job performance.

So how could Kate have framed her message to limit the risks arising from confirmation bias and the focusing illusion? A one-part message is a good option. The second part — the clause that covers a possible exceptional case when Warren can't attend a meeting in person — isn't really necessary. Contacting one's supervisor in exceptional circumstances that affect performance is generally a default option that applies to everything. Using this one-part message approach, Kate could have said, simply, "Warren, we need you to attend the Thursday meetings in person." Such a simple statement leaves little room — or at least, less room — for misinterpretation.

Because over 200 distinct cognitive biases have been reported in the literature, message mixing that occurs in the mind of the recipient is difficult to avoid. But we can make some progress in limiting the risk by crafting messages that are simple and clear. Go to top Top  Next issue: Availability and Self-Assessments  Next Issue

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