I write. They read. Some people are confused or upset. They complain. I’m frustrated.
Live through this cycle a few times and it’s tempting to communicate less. I call this temptation the leadership writing pitfall.
Try as I might, it seems my writing is always interpreted in multiple, often conflicting ways. I try really hard to be clear, complete, and unambiguous. Some level of confusion and misinterpretation seems inevitable, regardless of how well-crafted or thoughtful the writing. It can be discouraging.
It’s not just me. I’ve seen, as other people have stepped into leadership roles, the same thing happen to them.
I work with smart, thoughtful people. The audience isn’t the problem. I’m a decent, careful writer, as are my colleagues. I don’t think the author is the problem. I’ve concluded that some level of confusion and misinterpretation is simply inevitable when you’re writing about challenging or complex topics to an audience of 50+ people.
I have felt, and I have seen in my colleagues, a natural but dangerous reaction to this unavoidable misinterpretation. Namely, if my writing is inevitably misinterpreted, and sometimes causes fear, uncertainty, doubt or anger, which I will then need to spend time dealing with, then maybe it’s better, and it’s certainly easier, to not communicate at all.
This is a dangerous reaction because the job of a leader is to set direction and help move the organization accordingly. That requires communication. Less communication means less effective leadership.
I find it helps me avoid this leadership pitfall by reframing the problem.
The right goal for leadership writing
What I’ve concluded is that it shouldn’t be expected, nor is it possible, that my communication is perfectly complete or entirely unambiguous. That’s a standard no one can meet when there are 50+ recipients. It reminds me of the fallacy behind old-school waterfall software development—a perfect spec (complete, unambiguous, accurate, relevant) can’t be created in a vacuum regardless of how much time and effort you put into it. Like with software development, some pre-planning is necessary, but success is achieved through doing, not upfront planning.
I think it’s wrong to think about causing fear, uncertainty, doubt or anger (FUDA) with my communication. FUDA may certainly arise because of what I write, but describing it as having been caused by me means I’m responsible for it. I can’t be responsible for something I don’t know exists, can’t fully understand, and can’t resolve. It’s the responsibility of the individual to resolve their FUDA, not my responsibility to have prevented it.
(This of course doesn’t mean I get a pass and can write hastily, sloppily, or unthoughtfully.)
I think about leadership communication as a contract: I write and do my best to explain; Atoms read and engage to resolve any FUDA they may feel.
Besides fighting the dangerous tendency of communication avoidance, I think this reframing is important for other reasons. If I felt responsible to achieve perfect understanding in every one of my employees, then I’d take too much time pondering and writing, and progress would slow. I’d always feel like I failed, since perfect, uniform understanding is an impossible standard to achieve. If I prepare carefully, write clearly, review and edit before publishing, then I should feel good about my work even if some FUDA arises from it.
Finally, if my goal was perfect understanding in the recipient, I’d be disempowering my employees by removing their responsibility in the communication contract.
Writing to transmit ideas and information between people is a two-way process in which equal responsibility resides in the writer and reader. To riff on Alexander Pope, “To write is human; to understand, divine.”
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