Message Distortion – What You Said Is Not What Is Heard
What you said is not what is heard…
Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle wrote his first Sherlock Holmes story in 1886. The fictitious character was based on a real man, Dr Joseph Bell, a renowned forensic scientist at Edinburgh University. Conan-Doyle wrote 60 adventures in total. The collection is known as The Cannon. All but 4 stories are narrated by Holmes’ loyal sidekick Dr Watson. Together, they solve the most amazing mysteries. Now think for a moment. What’s the most famous Sherlock Holmes expression you know?
Most probably you answered, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Now here’s the interesting part. The character Sherlock Holmes never actually uses this precise phrase. You won’t find it in any of Conan-Doyle’s books. Holmes does say ‘Watson’ all the time. He was his loyal companion after all. He also uses the word ‘elementary’ repeatedly, as a way of showing how smart he is. (They run into the most complex situations. Holmes points out the solution and states it’s ‘elementary’ as if the solution is the most obvious thing in the world). And somehow, both words ended up together. Why? Because there’s a nice fit. We can easily imagine Sherlock Holmes saying, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” showing his unique ability and intellectual superiority towards his friend Watson.
It’s a characteristic of a communication phenomenon science calls Message Distortion, another villain on the execution road. Gordon Allport and Joseph Postman researched message shortening. And their results are astonishing. A message loses a whopping 70 percent of its details after 5 to 6 mouth-to-mouth transmissions.
Imagine the effect of this happening with the messages you are putting out internally and externally. Internally we can get message distortion when senior management cascade messages downwards. How these are communicated and the essence of the message changes slightly with each repetition, often making the final transmission of the message quite different to what it started out as. Similarly, when information is escalated up the management chain we find that details, nuances and key information is often omitted or changed giving a very different picture to what was intended or expected. There is a large body of research that indicates the effects of the hierarchy on the distortion of messages. Just a few of those findings are that:
- Employees tend to send more favorable than unfavorable information is sent up the organizational hierarchy, especially when that information is important.
- Employees tend to send messages that please their supervisors or managers.
- Employees tend to send information up the hierarchy that they think their supervisor or manager wants to hear.
- Unfavorable information is more likely to be blocked from being sent up the hierarchy.
- The more upwardly mobile an employee is, the greater the distortion of messages that go up the hierarchy.
- The less that employees trust their supervisors or managers, the more that information is distorted as it moves up the hierarchy.
Externally message distortion can also happen when you communicate with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders – and when messages are misunderstood they can be costly in terms of money, time, relationships and management attention.
To reduce the incidence and effects of message distortion use these three techniques:
1. Communicate only the essence of the message – keep it brief and succinct.
2. Check that the other person has understood what has been said.
3. Check that the other person has interpreted it correctly, ask how they will share the message with others.
This won’t eliminate message distortion, but it will help to reduce it significantly, and to help people communicate clearly and consistently, and to avoid misunderstandings and mistakes.
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