Be Mindful of Your Messaging

The messages and communications that leaders send to employees, particularly those on the frontline, are critical. A well put message can boost morale, inspire engagement, and improve relationships between management and frontline employees. On the other hand, clunky or poorly delivered messaging can backfire, even if well-intended. Be especially wary of 'inspirational’ messaging that focuses on influencing the mindsets, feelings, and perspectives of people in tough roles.

One example of corporate messaging gone wrong can be seen in the case of The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura. For those not familiar, the Recycled Orchestra is a group of youth musicians from the communities surrounding the Cateura landfill. The landfill is one of Paraguay’s largest, containing trash originating from the nearby capital city of Asunción. The living conditions are poor in these neighborhoods, such that residents commonly use materials from the landfill to satisfy their basic sheltering needs. Under these conditions, a program emerged that taught children how to play musical instruments created from the recycled landfill material. The success of the program is documented in the film “The Landfill Harmonic,” which shows how trash and recycled materials can be transformed into beautiful sounding instruments. Perhaps more importantly, the story highlights the transformative effect of the program on the lives of those involved.

I was first introduced to the story of the Recycled Orchestra through a corporate training session I attended. The company used the story to emphasize the importance of creativity and cooperation in the workplace. The intended message was that individuals can and should take initiative and exercise creativity to achieve results. The case of the Recycled Orchestra demonstrated that success was possible if we just adopted the right mindset, even under the direst of circumstances. Some employees received the message as intended, but for others the message sounded more like “take our trash and somehow compose us a symphony.” Management had sent (from their perspective) a message of inspiration but had instead solidified employee feelings of resignation. 

There is a constellation of factors that can contribute to a disconnect between the message sent and the message received. One factor is the degree to which management and frontline perspectives agree on the root of the problem. By emphasizing the need for individuals to “take more initiative” or be “more creative,” management implied that both the problem and solution resided within the mindset of the employees. In contrast, frontline workers cited a lack of resources and poor management practices as the greatest barriers to success. Returning to the Recycled Orchestra comparison, was the problem that community members had previously lacked creativity and drive, or that their environment was literally flooded with trash?

Another factor that can impact how messaging is sent and received is the diversity of the workforce. When leadership does not reflect the overall diversity of the broader organization, they may have blind spots which can hinder effective communication and problem-solving. Leaders may not be aware of the unique challenges faced by minority groups, or the creativity and determination they are already bringing to a demanding role. Asking for more when someone is already at the end of their rope can be off-putting.  

Managers and leaders can take proactive steps to avoid sending the wrong message and more effectively achieve their desired results. A good first step is to seek and identify barriers in the work environment before appealing to employees to do more or better. Another step is to gather candid feedback from employees with diverse backgrounds, skillsets, and experiences. With these insights, leaders can consider unique perspectives that may otherwise be withheld or overlooked. By focusing your efforts and messaging on acknowledging and solving systemic issues, you are more likely to create lasting solutions without risking negative reactions from employees.

Posted by Brian Molina, Ph.D.

Brian has been in the field of Behavioral Science for over 8 years. He has helped organizations improve their operations and service delivery by assessing performance and implementing learning and performance solutions to drive desired outcomes. He has broad experience partnering with business, non-profit, and public sector entities.