A Leader’s Game of Telephone

Jack and Diane were leaders. Both believed they were good communicators and yet one was better understood than the other. It was Jack who shared the clearest coaching guidance and Diane who directed the best urgent action. Their styles were part of who they were. Their personalities both held leadership potential and skill, but their teams were very different. One leader modified any message to meet the team’s preference and acumen. One didn’t. One was understood well, and one wasn’t. One felt they were in a game as old as the song with their same names. In truth, the game of telephone is likely older than the song and it happens every time a leader thinks what they said is clear, until it comes back around, having made the rounds of the entire team, and is twisted beyond recognition. Want to lead better? Stop playing games with your team and meet them where they live, so to speak. Speak how they speak and in ways they easily understand. The game of telephone begins with a need to conduct interpretation and is fostered by misunderstanding. Avoid the need for those you lead to do both. These three steps are critical and will help.

Mind the Gap

Jack was a laid-back guy. He cared immensely, unless you wronged him. He hated conflict and he hired a crew, over the years, that was very similar to him in nature. He got them. They liked him and they even, at times, hung out after work and on the weekends. The gap in how they thought, what they valued, and how they worked, was minimal. Diane was less fortunate. A driven, ambitious young leader, she’d recently taken over one of Jack’s old divisions. He’d hired her new team before her arrival, and many of them were just like him. Diane was not just new, but radically different in her approach and style and preference. “We’ll get to it.” was not a favorite phrase, nor even really in her nature. She had no patience for “that’s how we’ve always done it” and she didn’t see the value in these words or phrases: relax, calm down, or chill out. The gap between her style and that of those she led was significant. The gap led to frustration, which made her strength come out even louder and stronger. Her direction, which she thought was clear, turned into reports that she was bullying and didn’t like any of them. The game of telephone had struck again. What she said and how she said it was not what they heard nor how they interpreted her direction. The gap was slowing performance because so much time was spent on a lack of clear translation of her message and intention. How big is the gap between your style and that of those you lead? How might you close that gap and get back to everyone focusing on their work?

Make Changes

Insanity can be defined as doing the same actions repeatedly and expecting different outcomes immediately. In leadership, turnover is rooted in this same behavior. Poor performance can also be traced to a leader who fails to connect, much less motivate and influence, and makes no changes in their approach to employees who are different. If Diane didn’t change a thing, what she wanted and needed from the team would continue to be slowed by the need to address perceived bullying, or at a minimum, rampant misunderstanding. Did she ever call the team slow or weak? Of course not! What she said was get it done and quick, but as the message filtered its way through the team, what she’d said and what was heard were two different things. The game of telephone persisted and provoked worse behavior until she made some changes. She began to be less frustrated and more interested in development. She reassured the “guys” that she and they would grow together. She let them know she had their back, regardless. She built trust and made that her focus. It wasn’t what came easy, but it was what was needed to effectively lead her team members. What modifications might you need to be making? And are you willing to lead your own thinking in that you might need to initiate the changes before you see them in those you’re leading?

Manage Expectations

Ready to change or not, whether your gap is large or small, chances are good that your expectations are partly to blame for any frustration experienced in your position. Your communication is only as clear as the level of understanding of those you lead. Your motivation is only as strong as the influence you’ve developed with this team. And both are measured by you based on what you expect they “should” be doing. If the gap between your style and theirs looks more like a canyon, your expectations are going frequently un-met. If you change nothing in your leading behavior, consider at least truly adjusting your expectations to what appears to come naturally to them. The alternative is continuing to lead as you wish, but not as they need, enduring perpetual miscommunication in what feels like a never-ending round of the telephone game we all sat in a circle and played as children.

Whether you lead a team who lays the lines, flips fuses, or locates buried cables, all leaders must be aware of these issues among those they have the privilege of leading. Minding the gap is like measuring pole-to-pole distance. Making modifications is like changing to a fuse that can handle more amperage. And managing expectations is leading the effort to connect even when there are issues not readily visible at the surface. The goal in all is to lead without mimicking a children’s game. The goal in all is to lead with clear understanding of what you’re asking of those looking to you for direction. The outcome is becoming a better leader who knows about the game and has enough self-leadership, humility, initiative, and skill to choose not to play it.


Monica Wofford, CSP is a leadership development specialist, keynote speaker, and executive coach. For more information on her books, training firm or coaching services, call 1-866-382-0121, or go to www.ContagiousCompanies.com.


THIS COLUMN EXPLORES TIPS AND TECHNIQUES TO IMPROVE YOUR ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE WITH CO-WORKERS, CUSTOMERS AND INDUSTRY STAKEHOLDERS.

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