Clear as mud: Why people often don’t hear what you thought you said
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Clear as mud: Why people often don’t hear what you thought you said

It’s Friday, and you’re about to depart on a business trip. You have a meeting scheduled with a key customer the following Tuesday, where you want to present an analytical report. So you tell the employee who’s finalizing the report — let’s call him Jim — that he needs to e-mail it to you by end of day on Monday.

Jim gets busy with a customer problem on Monday and he’s unable to get the report done by 5 p.m. But he’s not worried – “end of day” is midnight. He’ll finish the report at home and e-mail it you later in the evening.

But when you check your email at 5:30 and the report isn’t there, you do a slow burn. You have to show it to the customer first thing tomorrow, and you need to give it a final look. You fire off a curt email asking Jim if he forgot about the report. Jim — who’s busting his hump to get everything done by “the end of the day” — now feels angry and disrespected.

He’s right to feel that way. To get the results you want from your team, your first responsibility as a leader is to communicate your expectations accurately. You thought that’s what you were doing. But in hindsight, you can see that your instructions were less than clear. So why didn’t you realize it at the time?

‘Illusion of transparency’

That’s just one example of what psychologists call “the illusion of transparency.” Research shows that even highly motivated and intelligent people often fail to communicate what they mean – even when they think they’re being perfectly clear.

It’s not surprising that people often misinterpret what we mean to say. What you may find surprising is that misunderstanding is the default – even when highly skilled communicators are trying to be as clear as possible.

A study conducted at Cornell and Northwestern Universities put seasoned negotiators on one side of the bargaining table and MBA students on the other. The negotiators were told to be crystal clear about their priorities in the deal. The grad students were asked to identify and rank each negotiator’s top five priorities. After the meeting, the researchers found that fewer than 30% of the students were able to successfully rank the negotiator’s priorities. Even under these ideal circumstances, miscommunication was the norm, not the exception.

For managers, the illusion of transparency results in more than wasted time and effort. It threatens your credibility. Your people end up feeling confused, resentful or even hung out to dry. Eventually, they may question your decisions and your competence.

You may think that you and your team are at low risk because you’ve worked together for a long time and know each other well. But research suggests the opposite: The more comfortable we are with people, the more we mistakenly believe they can read us and vice versa.

Encoding and decoding

So why does the illusion of transparency happen? And what can you do to overcome it?

The illusion of transparency happens because of how our brains encode and decode messages. To see how, let’s go back to our example with Jim and see how this message went awry.

You started with a thought – something along the lines of “I need to get this report by 5 p.m. on Monday.” But we don’t communicate thoughts. We translate thoughts into words, expressions and actions, using an internal “dictionary” based on our own knowledge, experiences and assumptions.

In your “dictionary,” “end of day” and “5 p.m.” mean the same thing. And since you know what’s at stake, you can’t imagine how Jim could fail to get your urgency. But when that message reaches Jim, he uses his internal dictionary to decode it — a dictionary based on his knowledge, experience and assumptions. And in that dictionary, “end of day” has a different definition – any time before midnight.

Jim’s past experience with you actually makes matters worse. If he’d never worked with you before, he might have been more diligent about pinning down the deadline. But in the past, when you’ve asked for a report by “end of day,” you never complained if it came later in the evening.

The upshot: What you thought you were encoding as “5 p.m. on Monday, no matter what” gets decoded as “5 p.m. on Monday if possible, but before midnight no matter what.”

You can’t look inside your employees’ heads to see their internal dictionaries. But you can encode your messages in ways that increase the odds that they’ll be decoded accurately, no matter who’s receiving them.

6 guidelines

Here are six research-based guidelines to avoid falling into the “illusion of transparancy” trap:

Root out ambiguity

Ask yourself, “Other than my intended meaning, how else might someone interpret this?”

Speak and act consistently

For example, if Jim has sent you late-night reports in the past and you haven’t complained, why would this time would be any different? His internal dictionary is based in part on earlier messages he’s received from you.

Provide context

If Jim had known the “why” behind your message, he would have been more likely to decode it accurately. It takes time to show people the bigger picture, but you’ll be more likely to get the results you need.

Repeat yourself

Then repeat yourself again. Research from Harvard Business School found that the most effective managers are deliberately redundant to make sure their employees get the message.

Close the loop

Ask people to feed back to you what you told them. Research suggests that hearing feedback from a listener can dramatically improve the accuracy of your communication.

Assume you will be misunderstood

That’s the default. If you think you’re being clear, chances are you’re not. You need to know you’ve been understood.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Communication: The ‘Illusion of Transparency’ and Why Your Messages Aren’t Getting Through.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following scholarly articles:

Gilovich, T., et al. (2003) The illusion of transparency in negotiations. Negotiation Journal, 19.2: 117-131.

Leonardi P., et al. (2012). How Managers Use Multiple Media: Discrepant Events, Power and Timing in Redundant Communication. Organization Science, 23(1) 98-117.

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