Mixed messages can cause confusion, demotivation and waste hours that a small firm can’t afford. Yet, staff often complain about mixed messages from their boss. How can you ensure you’re not guilty of giving out mixed messages? Mixed messages can cause staff to feel confusion, anger, and tend to reduce productivity. When working with the owners of small firms I often hear from staff about how confused their boss leaves them, despite “the boss” not realising.

I don’t understand her. She tells me my role is business development, and that I should concentrate on following up leads, and then gives me more tax returns to do”

Many years ago I watched my then boss deliver details of our new business plan and vision, he did a good job and it sounded brilliant. He got to the end, paused, then said “Does anybody have any questions”, as he crossed his arms at the front of the room. The atmosphere changed as the six of us fell silent after previously hanging on his every word. He had mixed his messages, one saying talk – the other we received was “don’t talk”.

What are mixed messages?

Mixed messages are confusing things you say because you say one thing and behave as though you mean something else or you make two contradictory statements.

“I don’t get it. He complains about me not showing initiative, yet stops me from doing anything other than what he told me”  (his words and behaviour conflict).

Fixing “the problem”

Firstly realise that it’s the interpretation of the person receiving the message, and may not be how you intended to send it. Think about of my boss folding his arms when saying “any questions”; it was our interpretation that he didn’t want any questions. Why do you think he made a “closed” gesture whilst asking us to open up? Maybe he’s more comfortable standing like that, felt cold, it could be his natural pose (I often do it as it stops my back from aching), and maybe (just maybe) he didn’t want to answer our questions. It doesn’t matter why, what matters is how we received the message and the impact it had on us. Download our free guide to body language, it will help with mixed messages, It doesn’t matter what you intend to say, it matters how your team receive the message. If you can understand how your expressions, gestures, eye contact, postures (as well as what you say) may be interpreted by others, you can attempt to change them.

  • It’s hard to stop yourself from sending mixed messages, but being aware of the problem will help.
  • Creating an open atmosphere where people can ask you for clarity, without fear of feeling stupid or reprisal will also help. But remember it can be very hard for somebody to ask, even if they consciously realise that your words and actions were confusing.

Did you read “Use effective communication skills, or become deranged“, it will help improve your communications.

Some responses to reduce mixed messages

Responding constructively and patiently to mixed messages from your staff will help you and them. You can’t stop others from sending you mixed messages, although changing how you respond can help. Tell the other person about your confusion, lets them know the impact on you.

I’m not sure how to best help. You say you want me to be ask for more clarification, yet when I ask, you look displeased” (words and behaviour conflict).

I’m confused, as you say you’re fine, yet you look sad (words and body language conflict).

I feel confused. You said you would help me, but now you’re going out for the afternoon (words and actions conflict).

When somebody realises they are sending mixed messages, they can clarify. It may be just that they didn’t realise they had given out mixed messages. It’s possible that they actually are mixed up in their thinking. Your polite and constructive feedback can help them. Then, if they want, they can address the issue. That can also help the relationship. Remember as it’s your firm, it’s your job to help your team deal with change and understand you – not theirs! What’s the best example of mixed messages you’ve ever come across? Download our free guide to body language, it will help with mixed messages,

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