Alternative Lines of Communication

You are unhappy with an employee’s performance. Following good management practice (praise in public, criticize in private), you meet with him one-on-one to tell him that he is not making the grade. His current project is far behind schedule. His direct reports aren’t productive. His numbers are slipping. Unless he improves, you may decide he’s not the person for the job.

He leaves the meeting with a clear idea of what he needs to do to satisfy your expectations. You have delivered an unpleasant message in a supporting, objective manner. You have been a good boss.

What happens next?

With modern communications, there is a high likelihood that the content of that private meeting is distributed widely, with the employee’s slant on it rather than yours.

Maybe he posts a message on his Facebook wall. “Got reamed at work today. So unfair. I beat my brains out for this company and all they want is more.” Or he tweets to his friends, “Boss just ripped me a new one. Too bad he didn’t give me the people I need to do the job.” Or he emails his colleagues, “Mr. Big is on the war path. Be ready for him to come down on you.”

Or, he calls in his direct reports and tells them they have to shape up and get on track. Then one or more of them distributes similar messages to his friends.

The days when you controlled the lines of communication are long gone. I’m old enough to remember when companies audited their long distance telephone bills to make sure no one was making unauthorized calls. Now the cost isn’t enough to be worth having someone look at it. Most companies don’t review emails; there are simply too many of them. A few restrict Internet usage, but most employees have the same capabilities at home as they do on the job.

The Internet has privatized company-wide communications. Now every employee has the ability to distribute mass information through the organization; a role that was once limited to the realm of memos from the top. Such communication isn’t discrete. With the mixing of business and personal relationships through social media, such messages might be going out to customers and vendors as well.

What can you do? You can’t stop it, but you should be proactive and preemptive in controlling the communications environment. Confidential now means face to face. I’ve learned to write emails with an attitude that assumes every one could wind up on a bulletin board somewhere. I also start a new email if the back-and-forth response extends beyond a couple of quick answers. Too often a different topic of conversation lurks in the forgotten first few messages of a string.

Psychological studies show that people give far more credibility to the first version of a story. The second version is always compared to the “truth” as they knew it from the first hearing. Differences are taken skeptically, unless the second teller has a far stronger and more personal connection with the recipient.

The best defense is a good offense. Use communication tools to reach out to employees constantly. Help them to grow accustomed to hearing things from you, and trusting in you to keep them informed. Leadership in the age of unlimited communication is all about being the best communicator. It’s one more thing to add to your ownership responsibilities, but it’s not one you can afford to shirk.

Remember, if you aren’t telling the employees what they need to know, someone else will happily assume the role for you.

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