Communicating effectively – or not

By guest blogger John Kearns

Early in my career as an academic leader, I was serving as my university’s business dean. One day, a department chair named Michelle stopped by my office and said she needed to speak with me about an adjunct faculty member. I recognized the person’s name, but I could only vaguely match the name to a face.

“Does he have a mustache?” I asked.

Michelle gasped and covered her upper lip with her palm. “What??? Do I have a mustache?!?”

“No, no!” I sputtered, imagining that I had somehow managed to blow up the great working relationship I had built over time with one of my chairs. I immediately tried to clarify: “Does the adjunct have a mustache?”

“Oh,” Michelle said, suddenly realizing it was just a misunderstanding. “Yes,” she said matter-of-factly, “he does.” The conversation continued, thankfully without any further awkwardness.

I felt terrible for days. I assumed it was my fault. Had I been staring at Michelle’s upper lip when I asked the question? (Probably not.) Had I used the wrong pronoun – you instead of he? (Definitely not.)

And yet Michelle had, for a brief moment, been pretty certain that her dean thought she had a mustache. The more I reflected on what I would later call the mustache incident, the more it taught me a critical lesson about how, in a hierarchical organization, some people are listening to their leader on two levels. On one level, they’re listening to your words and taking them at face value. But on another level–and this is where you can stumble onto an interpersonal explosive device–they’re expecting the worst: bad news or a difficult request or a negative comment. You may have never acted with anything but integrity and respect as a leader, but for some people there is always the expectation that eventually you are going to slip up and reveal that you are, in fact, a horrible boss after all.

From that day forward, I approached every form of communication, from email to memos to speeches, on two levels:

  1. What I hoped my audience would hear
  2. How my words might be interpreted in the worst possible way

It didn’t always keep me from the occasional fumble, but no one ever again wondered if I was inquiring about a mustache.

John Kearns serves as Minnesota State’s senior writer for executive and strategic communication

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