Clarity in communication is a hallmark of excellent leadership. But as a leader, you always have two potential channels of meaning--implicit and explicit. Those channels can be clear but at odds with each other, and when that happens, it almost always spells trouble.

This problem takes a host of forms in everyday business. For example, your partner might tell you explicitly that there's no rush on a project and then send you messages every single day to ask how it's coming along, implicitly communicating that you need to get the lead out. Or perhaps your business tells workers in formal policies and statements they won't tolerate sexual misconduct, only to dismiss complaints when people actually file them.

And big-name executives, entrepreneurs and leaders aren't immune. Apple's CEO Tim Cook, for example, has been criticized for explicitly condemning the policies of President Donald Trump and then sending the implicit message of support by participating in events for the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board.

How Conflicting Communications Can Hurt

A lack of alignment in your explicit and implicit communication is detrimental in two big ways, the first of which is productivity. Most people don't want to perform tasks or take a specific approach unless they're confident they're supposed to do the job, not only because it could necessitate redoing work, but also because they don't want to seem incompetent. So as workers try to figure out what channel to act on, you can experience significant delays that strain relationships, elevate stress, ding morale and hurt the bottom line.

Secondly, a lack of alignment that cannot be immediately clarified inevitably forces your team to pick a side. Eventually they have to make a call on what you want, and conflicts can rage as workers argue about how to move forward.

In some cases, divisions can worsen distrust of all higher-ups. In the sexual harassment example above, for instance, leaders might rally together, holding up their written documents as evidence that they do, in fact, take a strong stand, all while workers rally together to protest the toxic culture. These "us versus them" rifts can be extremely difficult to heal once they've formed and even can lead to legal complications.

How to Bring Your Explicit and Implicit Communication Together

To avoid the issues conflicting communications can create, make sure you're doing the following:

  • Clearly identify your goals, including even non-priorities/secondaries. Acknowledge these frequently to yourself and, if you're preparing in advance, ask yourself if your explicit or implicit instructions support items that aren't on your list (they shouldn't). Share these with others for accountability.
  • Be highly aware of situations where you sense that you need to choose your words, body language or other actions carefully simply to appease an individual or group and avoid ramifications. When you try to appease others in the moment, you are more likely to contradict what you've already said and done.
  • Ask for feedback. You might not be aware of how strong your implicit messages are, so directly inquiring about what others understood from your messages or behaviors can help you clear up misunderstandings or conclusions you honestly didn't intend. It also can help you hone in on your particular habits, making it easier to guide yourself clear of future conflicts.
  • Create a home base. This means developing a set of information, statements, specific tools, etc. that you always turn to for your talking points or activities. Keep the set readily available for use across different environments and platforms.

People generally are good at understanding direct, unambiguous communications you spell out. But they also are incredibly apt at inference based on experience and hundreds of culturally created rules. By making efforts not to split the messages you're sending, you'll leave little question about your integrity and keep your company on track.

Published on: Dec 24, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.