vPsychology for Business


We are dedicated to bringing out the best in you and your employees

Volume 4, Number 13                                                             June 27, 2003


Psychology for Business is an e-mail newsletter written by  Dr. John Weaver, Dr. Lynda Dahlke, and Dr. Paul Glass, business psychologists and independent consultants. It is published bi-weekly. You’ve received this newsletter because you’ve subscribed to it or it was forwarded to you by a friend or colleague. To subscribe sign up at our website, http://www.psychologyforbusiness.com/. If you wish to cancel your subscription, please see the end of this e-mail for easy instructions

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By Dr. John Weaver, Business Psychologist and Executive Coach

I recently offered an interactive hour for my local (Waukesha) Chamber of Commerce on communication in the workplace. My co-presenter, Jerry Fons of the Leadership Development Group, and I gathered questions from the participants about the most challenging problems they encountered with communication on the job. We were able to address some of the questions during the session, but there were several that we did not have time to talk about. In the second of a series of newsletters, I will respond to one of these questions.

Question: Long term plans of senior management do not “filter down” to the next management level very well.

Here is the problem. The ideas are clearly conceived and the strategy carefully crafted. It is based on sound reasoning that will be good for the company and a boon to customers. But the ideas are never implemented. The bottom line remains flat and business is lost to the competition.

There is no shortage of blame for the failure. Senior management complains bitterly about the lack of responsiveness. At the supervisor level, there are loud complaints about the most recent “flavor of the month” business initiative. Employees are cynical about the attempt to increase the work load without any more pay or any more resources to get the job done.

It started out as a promising idea that ended up with everyone in the organization more frustrated. How does this happen?

If this were a rare event, it would form the basis of an entertaining story. (There are jokes that circulate the internet based on the way information changes as it is passed from level to level in an organization.) But it is a real life problem that creates havoc in real business time and time again.

Making the Assumption          

One of the underlying problems that senior management faces, when trying to communicate ideas, is that they often make the assumption that business in rational. Plans are laid out in a logical fashion. Executives pay detailed attention to the numbers. With all this attention to the logical, hard-nosed facts, it makes the process rational, right?

The belief in the rationality of business is an irrational belief.

Business involves human beings. Humans select the data to analyze. Humans make the interpretations. Humans assign more weight to some data than to others. Humans find some information easy to overlook or forget.

Human behavior is a mixture of the rational and the emotional. Always.

The first mistake that is made at the senior level, when communicating ideas to the company, is to forget that all communication is both rational and emotional. When business owners or executives impose decisions based on emotion without regard to reason, it is a problem. (For example, when the boss promotes a favored employee, the others will deeply resent the decision.) Likewise, when a decision is made by reason alone, it will be resented. (For example, a decision to lay off employees because the revenue is down will engender strong statements that management does not care for the average worker.)

If a good decision is to be accepted by lower levels of management it must not only be clear, there must be an attempt, by the owner/executive to acknowledge and address the emotional impact of the decision.

Questions to ask:

  1. What are the implications of this decision for the day-to-day work flow of my employees?
  2. Who will benefit from this change? Who will be negatively affected? Does the message to the workforce address these issues?
  3. What is the emotional tone of the message? Does it communicate optimism about the future? Is it a pessimistic message? Does the tone match the emotional tone of the overall business? If it challenges the overall emotional tone, does it do so in a way that is compelling to the listener to engender a real change?
  4. Is the emotional tone balanced by a reasoned and rational explanation of the decision? What are the good reasons for the decision? Are the assertions backed with data?

Imposing the Plan

The military/sports metaphors that are often used in business assume a top-down control that I have personally never observed in real life. Even the military does not exhibit a true top-down control over the troops. Effective leadership is both decisive and cooperative in a complex balance between two competing values.

Decisions that fail have usually failed to achieve this balance. It is too authoritative or too wishy-washy to motivate the workforce.

When owners/executives are too authoritative, people find ways to passively resist. A resistant worker may do exactly what he or she is told, and only what he or she is told. This is an extremely effective way to create a disturbance in the organization. No manager can anticipate all of the circumstances that will arise that must be dealt with to complete a job well. No one could be detailed enough to describe every contingency. And if it were possible, the amount of energy needed to make this work would be highly inefficient.

The most effective leaders give a general direction that clearly spells out the outcome and gives the necessary resources but leaves the employee to find his or her best plan to accomplish the task. A level of trust is required if the organization is to work at it highest capacity.

In an effort not to be too much of a “micromanager,” some will swing to the other extreme. If it is good to listen to the workforce, wouldn’t it be great to listen to them even more? The larger the organization, the more complicated it becomes to listen. Inevitably, in larger groups, there will be several competing opinions about what causes problems and what solutions will work.  Not everyone can be satisfied. If the business is not going to be paralyzed, the leadership has to make a decision.

The best strategy:  You have two ears and one mouth and you should use them in proportion! One reason that senior management information fails to filter down is that it appears irrelevant to the concerns of those on the front lines of the business. Although it appears that the ideas will address the concerns of the management team, it does not solve the problems of the staff, who are making the product, or selling it to customers, etc.

At the same time, the front line staff has only part of the whole picture. The challenge for the executive team is to address the needs of the whole organization, in a balanced way, to keep the business moving forward. There will be times when the best decision will be met with disagreement by some within the company.

Good leadership sometimes must find a way to get the organization to do what it does not want to do, in order for it to become what it wants to become.

Questions to ask:

  1. What are the most important concerns raised by the different facets of our organization?
  2. How do these concerns get communicated? What is the language that our employees use? What is the most common venue for this information to be shared? Who is most likely to speak about these concerns?
  3. What are the concerns of those employees who do not say much? What will it take to get them to take a more active role in communicating with management?
  4. Do the decisions of senior management address the concerns of the entire organization (even if the decisions are different than some might want)?
  5. Is there an explicit link between the concerns of the organization and the decisions being communicated?

Overwhelming the Listener

Communication does not take place in a vacuum. Many things are happening all at once even as the idea is being introduced. Other initiatives may be competing for attention. Deadlines are looming. Customers are making their own demands. Issues outside of work may be even more compelling. Family problems, financial pressures or even political concerns may impinge on the ability of key members of the workforce to listen to the information being presented by senior management.

When we receive too much information at one time, some of that information will be screened out by the listener. The demand to listen to more information results in heightened anxiety and frustration. The message is rejected without regard to its importance. It feels uncomfortable to be so overwhelmed and the discomfort is more compelling than the content of the communication.

Messages that are too complex or unclear will be lost because those who are on information overload will not have the energy to clarify it for themselves. Only the blatant aspects of the ideas will be remembered, which can sometimes result in gross misunderstandings of the subtleties.

The tendency to respond to this problem is to try to formulate the proposal in a “sound bite.” This can improve receptiveness or it can lead to shallow comprehension of the intended communication. When there is a shallow understanding the stage is set for later conflicts between senior management and other staff.

Clarity is important. A message that is simple enough to be quickly comprehended can also be helpful in a highly competitive environment. (But never confuse simple with easy. Some of the "simple" statements I make have taken years of work to understand well enough that the essence could be captured in a single phrase.) Patience to time the release of information at intervals to match the needs of the workforce is also important. Most important messages require single focus and sustained attention. If too much is competing for attention, the ability to attend to the message will be compromised.

Questions to ask:

  1. What other information will compete for attention with this message?
  2. Is the message important enough to be released at this time?
  3. How clear and compelling is the presentation of the idea?
  4. Has there been an effort to create adequate time to hear the idea and adequate resources to respond?

These are only some of the issues that are involved in effective communication of ideas from senior management to other segments of an organization. The smaller the organization, the more informal these efforts can be. A difference between a small organization and larger groups is in the need for bureaucratic organization and formal communication strategies. However, in all efforts, these psychological realities of human communication must be understood to be successful.


Did you know that executive coaching is not geographically limited?  Coaching by telephone is effective.  It is also an efficient use of time and resources.  You never need to leave your office to travel, nor do you need to pay travel expenses for your coach. We offer coaching either onsite or by telephone. Coaching can be ongoing or time-limited as you work to develop specific skills that will improve your performance or the performance of key personnel in your organization. To find out if coaching is right for you, contact us to schedule a FREE 1/2 hour consultation.  Or request a price sheet to determine the best value for your organization.  Call us at: (262) 789-2728 or email us at mailto:jweaver@psychologyforbusiness.com.


About the Author

John Weaver, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist with more than 23 years’ professional experience working with organizations, groups, and individuals. He has experience leading groups and creating teamwork in organizations. His areas of expertise include executive coaching, conflict resolution, coaching teams and individuals to improve performance under stress, assessing employees and potential employees to ensure the right person for the right job, and training in stress management and "The Vitamin C’s for an Emotionally Healthy Workplace."  He is an experienced professional speaker and published author.

Based in Waukesha, WI, Dr. John Weaver is available for consultation or executive coaching by phone, e-mail or in person. He may be reached at (262) 789-2728 (office) or (414) 491-8719 (cell), by e-mail: mailto:jweaver@psychologyforbusiness.com or: 

John Weaver, Psy.D. 
Psychology for Business
2717 North Grandview Boulevard, Suite 303
Waukesha, Wisconsin, 53188

 If you are interested in having Dr. Weaver speak for your organization, contact him at mailto:jweaver@psychologyforbusiness.com?subject=SPEAK .


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© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. John Weaver. Distribution rights: The above material is copyrighted, but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information. If you would like to reprint part of this newsletter please contact me at mailto:jweaver@psychologyforbusiness.com to make arrangements.


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Dr. John Weaver publishes another newsletter, co-authored by Darlene Weaver, THE CENTERED PENDULUMIt is our firm belief that lifelong patterns of “being” (personality, attitudes, emotions) and “doing” (lifestyle, adaptability, coping skills) interact with our genes and environment to create conditions of a healthy or a diseased brain.  If you would like to read previous issues of the Centered Pendulum newsletter or to subscribe, please visit the archives at http://www.centeredpendulum.org/newsletters.htm.