The curse of overreaction

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant”    Robert McCloskey – author

Communication is undoubtedly one of the most difficult skills of leadership.  It is therefore no surprise that miscommunication and inappropriate communication is the cause of most of the problems in organisational life. 

In their book “Execution”, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, point out that the main reason why business strategies fail is not because the strategy was bad in the first place, simply that the organisation failed to implement it.  In a large part this is as a result of the leadership team failing to communicate their vision effectively.

If communication is not effective, then the actions of people at all levels of the organisation will be inconsistent with the goals of the organisation.

For example, I was working with a group of middle-managers the other day.  As a result of the discussion, a number of excellent ideas emerged that could deliver tangible benefits to the organisation – cost reductions, improvements in productivity, increases in customer service and even increased sales.

I thought the meeting was going very well and was looking forward to seeing many of the ideas come to fruition.  However, when we started to agree the actions people would take as a result of the meeting, the mood changed significantly.  The optimism and enthusiasm disappeared and was replaced by a sense of gloom and despondency as one after another the managers explained why they were powerless to implement any of the ideas.

The reasons given all related to the current recession.  For example; “we have a recruitment freeze at the moment”, “there is no money for new projects”, “now would not be a good time as people are worrying about their jobs”.

The organisation was profitable and although times are tough I could see no good reason for such a negative attitude so, in an attempt to motivate the group, I asked them whether they had been told that good ideas were not welcome?  Or that funds would not be available to support projects that would deliver profitable returns?  Although they all admitted that they hadn’t been told this, I didn’t get the impression that any activity would result from their good ideas.

This is an organisation I know well and I am certain that the Chief Executive would be horrified if he knew that his middle-managers were behaving like this – but the truth is that it is his fault!

It all comes down to what psychologists call “priming”.

Imagine I have asked you to take a simple test.  In front of you is a piece of paper with a list of five-word sets.  I ask you to make a grammatical four-word sentence as quickly as possible out of each set.  It’s called a scrambled-word test.  Ready?

  1. him was worried she always
  2. very she hotel tired was
  3. ball the throw toss silently
  4. shoes give replace old the
  5. he observes occasionally people watches
  6. be will sweat lonely they
  7. sky the seamless grey is
  8. should now withdraw forgetful we
  9. us bingo sing play let
  10. sunlight makes temperature wrinkle raisins

After taking that test, believe it or not, you would have walked away more slowly than if you hadn’t taken the test.  The reason is that scattered throughout the test were certain words that would have had the effect of “programming” your behaviour.  The key words in this test were “worried”, “tired”, “old”, “grey”, bingo” and “wrinkle”. 

The test was devised by the psychologist John Bargh who proved that our subconscious mind picks up on words such as these and alters our state – in this case by making us feel older than we actually are.

Let’s go back to the group of middle-managers.  In the weeks before I met with them that have been exposed to a constant stream of negative communication about the state of the economy, their company and the markets they operate in.   In effect, they have been “primed” to feel negative about the future and the comments of the Chief Executive and the senior management team about “tightening our belt”, “cutting costs”, “freezing recruitment” etc. had served to confirm that view.

The result is that people overreact.  Instead of cutting costs, people stop spending altogether.  Instead of looking for opportunities to improve the business, people focus exclusively on “battening the hatches” and acting defensively.

Now I am certainly not suggesting that senior executives should engage in “happy talk” or that they should deny that times are hard, simply that they should be aware that they are subject to “priming” in the same way as everyone else and that they should be just as vociferous about the opportunities as they are about the need for restraint.

Instead of spreading doom and gloom, recognise that your employees have already had a healthy dose of doom and gloom while reading the paper or listening to the radio that morning.  Your job is therefore to provide a sense of realism and balance.

After all, the time to plan for the up-turn is now, while you have the time and while business is quiet.  And by the way, the best time to increase market share is in a recession. 

About the author
Alistair Schofield is managing director of Extensor Limited and can be contacted at .