Do You Mix Your Messages and Confuse Your Staff?


As leaders we know to be sensitive about mixing our messages. Here's why.


We humans make sense of our world by classifying our experiences, conversations and other people. Our classifications are binary in nature; they are an either/or category. The most common is good or bad. Other common classifications are them and uslike me or not like mehappy or sad. We make our classifying decisions based on the emotion we experience – our feelings – at that moment.  

Confusing or mixing messages occurs when the receiver of the message thought that the message was going down one of the binary arms (“good”) but it turns out that it was down the other (“bad”) or vice versa. Their emotions were conflicted.  

You’ll become more aware of any mixing of your own messages, and you will also learn by observing others – allowing your emotional detectors to guide you. Here are some common examples:

1. A CEO is hosting an end-of-year celebration event to thank the staff for a successful year. In their speech the CEO thanks the troops and then can’t help themselves – they preach that “we need to maintain our focus in the year ahead to maintain sales”. The message is now mixed and the staff wonder if it was really a “thank you” event or a “kick off” event for next year. It alters their feelings associated with the event.

2. A manager rings one of their staff who works in another location. The manager’s intention is to call just to say hello and to check-in if the person needs anything (a good thing to do). During the call the manager remembers a task that they need to talk to the person about. They raise the task and suddenly the receiver who had categorised the call as a “nice check in” thinks “Oh, my boss really wanted to get me to do something”.

3. A manager calls a candidate for a job to let them know that they have been unsuccessful. Rather than just let the person know they were unsuccessful and to explain why, the manager gushers about what a good candidate they were and how well they interviewed. The person categorises the call as “insincere” given that they missed out on the job.

4. A new manager recently appointed to the leadership role meets with their new staff in individual meetings (a good thing). But the manager confuses the purpose of the meeting by not just making it a get-to-know-you meeting by also raising their high performance expectations.

5. A manager gives a staff member negative feedback, but confuses the message by starting with praise (per the unhelpful “feedback sandwich” approach) where the receiver initially thought they were being acknowledged for their good work to then suddenly find the big BUT shifted the conversation to what they are doing wrong. 

Mixing the Emotions
When we mix our messages we are confusing the emotional response – the feelings – we trigger in the receiver. In the first part of our message we are leading the person down the path of either good or bad, and then we confuse the message – the person’s emotional detectors – by diverting them down the other path. 

And given our instinct of Loss Aversion, when we mix our messages the negative one dominates. The negative emotion becomes the memory of the event.

Tips for Leaders 

The remedy to avoid mixing messages is to stick to one emotion associated with the event and to separate the events when there are two objectives to cover.

1. The CEO who is driven by anxieties about next year’s results should celebrate this year's results and find another occasion to talk about the new year.

2. The manager who is calling for the purpose of checking -n and who suddenly remembers a task item should generally leave the task for another call, perhaps even just the next day.

3. Calling an unsuccessful candidate means letting them know they have been unsuccessful without the sugar coating that will likely be received as insincere.

4. The manager who is meeting people for the first time should decide that the purpose of this meeting is to be a relaxed and “positive” one and to leave the performance target discussion to a second meeting. It doesn’t all have to be covered at once, first time.

5. Giving negative feedback means covering the topic and  generally leaving any praise for another time. 

Our guide is the receiver’s emotional detector. If our message is intended to be “positive”, then make that the message and not mix with “negative”. We should avoid trying to squeeze too much into any one interaction. 

Andrew O'Keeffe

[email protected]



Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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