The Next Faithful Step

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Make Mixed Messages Discussable

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

Mixed messages create chaos, especially when it is the leader who sends them. But what is a person to do when their leader sends a mixed message? How can you respond when you are on the receiving end?

The best way to deal with these mixed messages is to break the cycle and make the mixedness discussable. Sometimes that means naming the competing commitments that created the mixed message For example, rather than sending a mixed message, you might say to a colleague, “I want to support your new project, but I worry it’s going to compete with my youth program. Can we talk about how to make sure they don’t compete with each other?”  On the other hand, if someone is sending you a mixed message, you may have to say something like, “Help me understand. If my idea is a good one, why are you over-ruling me?” Or, “If this project does not fit our new mission, why are we pursuing it?” And when the committee does not want to discuss the obvious contradiction, you might say, “Would you all help me? You all are not concerned about what appears to me to be a contradiction. So I may well be missing something. Would it be alright if someone explained what I’m missing?”

The chaos of mixed messaging depends on no one pointing out the obvious contradiction. This idea of pointing out the problem is what Chris Argyris means by making something “discussable.” If the contradiction is on the table for all to discuss, then it loses its power.

But you need to know that you may have to pay price. If, for example, the pastoral staff tells the senior pastor his pet project does not fit the new mission statement, the pastor will be irritated. The senior pastor knows it does not fit. That’s why he had to ask for permission. But he wants to do it anyway and he does not want to deal with the consequences. But the staff has a difficult choice. If they let the pastor continue his project, the mission statement loses its power and the process (and pain) that went into building that statement are all for naught. If, on the other hand, the staff holds the pastor’s feet to the fire and points out the good reasons the pet project does not fit the mission, the pastor will be angry. But that’s not a good enough reason to keep quiet. The healthiest organizational cultures have as part of their communal vocabulary this idea that mixed messages create chaos. So they can simply say to one another, “Help me understand what’s going on here. I’m experiencing a mixed message.”

Consider another example. One time I was a part of a team of board members, administrators, and faculty who spent fifteen months negotiating a strategic plan for my former school, a plan that included a new set of priorities.  I remember sitting in the vice-president’s office as he told me after the decisions were made that he did not have the money to enact them. I reminded him that the planning committee had solved that problem by shifting funding priorities and I reminded him that the board had approved it. He got angry; he yelled at me. He called me “a union negotiator trying to play hardball.” But I kept pointing him back to the strategic plan. I calmly said, “Jim, I did not make the decision. The Strategic Planning Team wrote the plan. The faculty, administration, and the board all approved it. Neither you nor I has the authority to change it.” I did not get angry. And, most importantly, I never called him a hypocrite. I kept the focus on the task and not on him. And in the end, he went along with the plan.

The mixed message here was subtle. The mixed message said that the informal authority of a staff member could trump the formal authority of the board. And that was the way the school had worked for many years. One purpose of the strategic planning process was to change that way of doing business. Jim was used to overstepping his formal authority. But I made the mixed message discussable. I pointed out that inconsistency. At first he was angry. But I had to decide that his anger was not the deciding factor. And making the mixed message discussable changed everything. In the end, he agreed that he did not have the authority to void the board-approved plan. And, after that, his relationship with me changed as well. We worked more as colleagues than as competitors.

But the warning remains. I have worked with leaders who punish people for disagreeing with them. I remember one who talked about how comfortable he was with dissent. But that was only possible because his staff had learned to hide their disagreements from him and to manipulate him rather than deal honestly with him. You have to decide for yourself on a case by case basis whether or not you can gently but clearly make contradictions discussable. If not, you end up with organizational chaos.

But chaos does not have to reign. Not long ago, I consulted with a large congregation. I taught their team of Associate Pastors about the chaos of mixed messages. They struggled with the idea at first. And then they started seeing it everywhere. They recognized the mixed messages they were sending their own people (e.g. make family a priority and be at church four days a week) and the mixed messages they were sending each other (e.g. each ministry here is equally important but I need all of you to flex to my ministry’s priorities). Having this language changed the way that they conducted staff meetings. They did not want chaos. So they encouraged each other to make mixed messages discussable. And they report that the resulting honesty transformed them from a staff into a team.