Where Did Your People Get That Crazy Idea?

By Thomas J. Lee

Probably every manager has shaken her head at some point and plaintively asked: Where on earth did the employees get that idea?

It may be a misplaced priority. It may be a misunderstood instruction. It may be misgivings about management's commitment to a goal.

Whatever the mis- of the moment is, chances are a manager has seen it before and wondered aloud where anyone could get that idea. After all, she reminds herself, she has stated the contrary over and over.

Here’s where they got that idea: In your mirror.

You and your organization do not speak with a single voice. You do not even speak with two voices. Rather, you speak with three. Only one of them consists of the words that flow from your mouth, your pen, or your keyboard. This, your formal voice, is the least of the three. The other two voices are far more powerful and far more memorable, because they are the fount of stories, which people use to discern and interpret reality. You would be wise to give some serious reflection to these other two voices.

I have spent the last couple of decades preaching the power of the semi-formal and informal voices in large, complex organizations. Together, your two non-formal voices account for eighty or ninety percent of all employee perceptions and expectations on matters of business direction and priority. Your mouth, your pen, and your keyboard don't stand a chance against them, unless all three voices—formal, semi-formal, informal—are in synch with one another. Only then and only there, where the rubber meets the road, can people get the truth you intended all along.


You are already familiar with your formal voice. In business, it consists of messages explicitly and deliberately sent by means of official media, be it a newsletter, a townhall meeting, an intranet site, a bulletin board, a banner across a factory wall, or even by a podcast or a tweet. Most organizations devote a great deal of money and creative talent to their formal voice. It's important, for sure, because it establishes a foundation. But it is easily and frequently overwhelmed and drowned out by the other two voices.

The semi-formal voice is the organization's institutional management tools that implicitly, and often inadvertently, establish direction and priorities and that signal the organization's readiness and eagerness (or not) for change. Some common examples of the semi-formal voice are employee perceptions and expectations as driven by, for example:

  • Major policy decisions

  • The decision-making process

  • Management programs

  • Cost accounting and spending authorizations

  • Compensation structure and levels

  • Personnel choices and policies

  • Meetings and agendas

  • Requirements and mandates

  • Budgets and expenditures (and conversely, the refusal to spend money)

  • Bureaucracy and speed

The informal voice is the connection, the network of relationships, between those in positions of leadership and those in positions of followership. It consists of employee perceptions and expectations as driven by, for example:

  • Day-to-day decisions

  • Visible behaviors

  • Apparent motivation

  • Authenticity and validation

  • Questions and responsiveness

  • Resources and support

  • Accessibility and presence (physical, intellectual, social, emotional)

  • Time, priorities, urgency

  • Courage, resilience, and risk

  • Inclusion and collaboration

  • Expectations and compromises

  • Sharing of information

  • Listening and dialogue

Like anything else in business, these three voices demand your attention. You already own their messages. You may as well manage them, or they will manage you. In order to manage them, you must first see them, for all three function as communication.

Only when all three voices are sending much the same message, only when all three are together nurturing a mutually respectful dialogue, only when they are honoring the nobility of an organization's purpose and values, and only when they are encouraging the alignment of behavior with strategy, can the organization reach its full potential.

Otherwise, it’s a roll of the dice. The semi-formal and informal communication will prevail over the formal communication, and employees will perceive a lack of integrity and thus a lack of leadership.

The key point to remember is that an organization’s formal voice can never operate in a vacuum. It must either compete with or complement the semi-formal and informal voices. Your credibility hangs in the balance.

If left unmanaged, the three voices will generate their own messages. Each message may contradict the last, and employees may be left in a state of confusion that sets the stage for cynicism and complacency or even contempt.

Only if managed well can the three voices resonate through an organization to bring people together and to clarify and reinforce important strategic priorities.

So, the next time you wonder where your employees got "that idea," ask yourself and your management team in all candor what the semi-formal and informal voices around your organization have been saying. Chances are you will have your answer. In all likelihood, employees got that idea from managers.

Then, resolve to manage the semi-formal and informal voices just as you have been managing the formal voice. If you have communication plans for the formal voice, you should have communication plans for the semi-formal and informal voices. If you have expected competencies and training in the formal voice, so you should in the semi-formal and informal voices, as well.

Remember, eighty or ninety percent of employee perceptions and expectations come from the semi-formal and informal voices. Manage them, or they will manage you. It's your choice.