Eight Scenarios When Straight Talk Backfires


By Thomas J. Lee

Over the last few days we have explored ten “talk traps,” or conventions of communication in business that often prove problematic for managers. Many of them work just fine in the right place and the right time, but they backfire in the wrong place or the wrong time. Others are always ill-advised.

The talk traps are Small TalkSunny TalkScare TalkSweet Talk (or Smooth Talk), Smart TalkSimple TalkSong and Dance TalkSlick TalkSnarky Talk (or Surly Talk), and Self Talk. We identified an eleventh, too: Snarl Talk. Just scroll down to read all about these common talk traps.

Then a couple of days ago we took a long look at some difficulties that beset Straight Talk, the preferable alternative to those ten talk traps. It turns out that Straight Talk can be difficult indeed.

Not only can Straight Talk be difficult, but occasionally it backfires altogether. If you have ever watched Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, you know what we mean. Straight talk can turn into a mess. 

Here are eight scenarios we have seen, even when leaders have the best of intentions:

  • Perhaps a leader has been taciturn in the past and then realizes she must communicate a new business strategy. She may assume that employees have a depth of knowledge about the company’s competitive situation that they actually do not. She speaks about the strategy as if it is a foregone conclusion, and she fails to explain its rationale. Employees can only wonder what she is talking about and why the particular strategy has found favor.

  • Or the leader sets out to communicate about the organization’s direction and priorities using words and phrases that are foreign to employees. The leader is speaking naturally and forthrightly, but employees perceive attempts to manipulate and spin the information.

  • Sometimes a new leader comes on board from another department or even another company in another industry. He wants to “hit the ground running,” as they say, so he lays out a vision before taking the time to fully appreciate the situation he has inherited. That leaves employees mystified over his selection in the first place.

  • The leader wants to set a high standard, so he invokes values that put a premium on integrity and team spirit. In the weeks and months that follow, decisions on policy and day-to-day management are seen as conflicting with, or only nominally conforming to, those values. Employees decide the leader is weak.

  • Not uncommonly, a leadership team relies on cascading to “get the word out” about a new policy, program, or priority. By cascading, we mean disseminating strategic information through an organization one level at a time. Cascading spawns rumors and creates a tangled web of misinformation and misunderstanding. It never works, and worse, it teases leadership into thinking that it has communicated when it actually has only miscommunicated.

  • Senior management devotes weeks or even months to crafting a new strategy, and the strategy is a glorious thing. But it exists only at the level of the enterprise or the division. It has not been translated or interpreted to its practical implications, so employees and their supervisors don’t know what to do with it. Mystified, they naturally ignore it. It’s dead on arrival, but management doesn’t realize it for months to come. So leaders continue talking about something that is a mere historical footnote in the minds of employees.

  • In harsh economic times, employees have reason to worry about their own economic security. Many are naturally fearful. The organization needs everyone’s full involvement, but only those people who like to hear themselves talk are willing to speak up. The need for open dialogue has yielded to a cacophony of the loud.

  • Having just read the latest best-seller from Harvard Business Press, the leader is pursuing a new management fad that employees think is just plain silly. Having seen so many fads come and go, they’re naturally resilient. They let the leader talk, of course—no one in her right mind will interrupt or fall asleep—but they’re thinking about their own projects and deadlines. The leader is serious but irrelevant.

If you have been around a while, you have seen scenarios like these more than once. None of them is the product of the ten talk traps. All of them involve leaders who think they are talking straight, and yet their very straight talk is actually part of the problem.

In our next post, we will look at some strategies and tactics a leader can use to keep straight talk straight.