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Mixed Signals – How to Stamp Out This Common Communication Barrier

mixed signals signLast week I gave a short talk about common communication barriers. Although the list I normally present to students in the organizational behavior class I teach contains nine points, I thought it best to narrow my “list” to two when addressing a non-academic group. Interestingly, what really resonated with the audience was my discussion of mixed signals. Given this feedback, I thought the topic of mixed signals deserved a Monday posting. Possibly you’ve seen the negative ramifications of this communication barrier at your workplace. Below are some thoughts to help identify when mixed signals occur and how to put an end to them.

Sound Familiar?

Mixed signals occur when a message is sent about a desired behavior, yet the sender of the message does not exhibit the behavior that is being encouraged. For example, a mixed signal would occur if a manager encourages workers at a grocery to greet customers enthusiastically and ask them, “Can I help you find anything?” but he is not known to greet customers himself and is reluctant to help customers find products. Of course, this type of mixed signal does not only occur with supervisory-level individuals. Our peers send mixed signals when they rant about the importance of punctuality for meetings, yet come to work 20-minutes late – every morning.

Mixed signals can also occur when verbal communication and non-verbal communication are in conflict. An example of this type of mixed signal occurs when a bland and unenthusiastic clerk, who refuses to make eye-contact, murmurs to you, “Can I help you?” The tone and demeanor of the clerk speak volumes and indicate that he or she is not interested in helping you – or anyone – but is merely counting the minutes until clock-out time.

What to Do?

Sometimes we shrug our shoulders at mixed signal offenders. Why? Because it’s hard to call someone out on these practices. It’s embarrassing (and possibly harmful to our long-term employment) to question our boss’s or peer’s conflicting actions and words. We don’t want to raise a big fuss . . . but it is these “small” annoyances that can lead to big decreases in job satisfaction. Here are three suggestions for positively addressing the mixed signals of others.

1. Politely ask your boss to “show you what he means.” If your boss has suggested an activity, such as greeting customers, but you’ve never seen him do this activity himself, ask for a demonstration. Make it fun. “Hey boss, Jane and I were wondering what the best greeting looks like. I think mine is the best, and Jane thinks her’s is better. We want to see your best-ever customer greeting.”

2. The same goes for peers. For the peer who makes a big deal about meeting punctuality but refuses to come to work on-time, encourage your work team to start a punctuality chart. List all of the “tardy” possibilities: start time, meetings, work-product deadlines, etc. For one week, record the tardiness of everyone on the team. If this activity is put into place in a good-spirited manner, the entire team could learn a bit about how punctuality – no matter the variety – impacts every member of the team’s performance.

3. Non-verbal communication can be very tricky to address but I have come to use a direct – but empathic – approach. To peers who seem unhappy or lacking emotion when they say, “glad to see you” or “thanks so much,” I’ve found it’s best to ask them if everything is ok. Frequently, this question is something of a wake-up call to the individual.  Being asked if she is ok can start the wheels turning in the mind of the offending individual.  “Oh, was I not sounding glad or grateful?”  Another possible result is that you and your colleague are able to have a candid discussion about her troubles.  At best, all is well with your colleague and she is just completely unaware of how her non-verbal communication is the real message that she is delivering – not her spoken words.

Mixed signals can be de-motivating – they are something of a silent killer. Best of luck stomping them out!

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