What to Do When a “Higher-Up” is Messaging Incorrectly

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Ever felt like this?

“This is my product; I own it. Why is this guy stepping in and trying to message about my product? He doesn’t get it. He’s misdirecting the team, now they’re confused. Now I have to clean up this message, just creating additional unnecessary work. Ugh!”

I was on a project recently where an executive was trying to help our team. He was attempting to direct the project and get us scattered herd of cats into a straight line. Unfortunately he was unsuccessful, and instead made the cats scatter further. His language was verbose, rather than direct and succinct, which led to confusion about the entire direction and objectives for the project.

Fortunately, I had a good relationship with everyone on our team, and was able to set the record straight when I saw that things were about to go awry. Every time we’d meet with this higher-up, we’d have an hour-long meeting that tended to cause more questions than answers, and after which I’d have sit with the team for 15 minutes and do my clean-up tactics: “Look, this is what we need: x, y, z. Any questions?” It’s a little more direct than how I typically communicate with my project teams; however, for an early phase of this high-pressure project, we needed to start everything off right to avoid chaos later: hiring the visionaries to get the idea, then hiring the tactics to get it done, and we needed it done yesterday.

So, if you have struggled with this in the past, or “know someone” that could use a few pointers, here are three quick things to keep in mind when a well-intentioned executive is leaving your project team baffled:

  1. First, make sure you aren’t the one who misunderstands. Hey, it happens– no one is perfect 100% of the time. Ask yourself, and then your team, “Is it just me, or did this meeting leave you with a general sense of ‘what the heck’?” Before you start making assumptions about where the rest of the collective team mindset is, make sure the answer isn’t “Yeah, it’s just you.”  (And then make sure YOU understand the direction of the project!)
  2. Next, make sure you can get everyone on your team on the same page. You don’t want to add to the confusion– clear, concise communication is a must. You also need to confirm with each individual that they now understand their directives, and know how to proceed to move the project forward. (Hey, speaking of concise communications, you know what helps with that? Visual models.)
  3. Finally, talk with your executive. It is really unlikely that he / she is purposefully leading the team into confusing territory. Maybe providing a little more background or detail about the project would help. Maybe mentioning common questions that keep arising is a good segue. If you approach the matter with diplomacy, the entire conversation can be easy, informative, and genuinely appreciated by your exec.

After a couple weeks of doing my “clean up”, I delicately mentioned the problem of confusing (and sometimes conflicting) communication the team was experiencing. I knew what the issue was and I was confident I could fix it. He trusted me completely to have that kind of communication, which was great, however, I felt bad that this was something I even had to address. I sent a clarifying email to the team to (again) make sure everyone understood.

For the interim, the higher-up was happy that the team was on the right path, I was happy that I didn’t feel like I was being subversive, and the team was happy to not be confused anymore. The solution fixed the most immediate problem, however, ultimately the team thought they couldn’t have any directive meeting without me present to “translate”, so the latent issue of communication wasn’t fixed.

Have you have problems with communication on your projects? If so, what were they and what did you do about it?

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