Why Conflicting Messages Exist

By | June 26, 2020

[June 26, 2020]  Past U.S. President Ronald Reagan is known as the “great communicator.”  Like Reagan, all leaders want to clearly and accurately communicate their thinking through speech or the written word.  That does not, however, always work out as intended.  Conflicting messages are common, and I will address five important reasons here.

  1. There is no consistent and central message. Protests over the past few weeks in the United States, following the police killing of George Floyd, have been about demands for justice, stopping systemic racism against people of color, and inequality.  There are several other, lesser reasons.  Some examples are a demand for slavery reparations, voter suppression, free college tuition, defunding police, etc.  It has been challenging to keep up with a growing list of demands.  One thing is clear, and that is message control is now lost.  What is the message today?  It seems to change by the day.
  2. When everybody is in charge, no one is in charge. Conflicting messaging occurs when there is no unified leadership.  For any group of people who want their message heard, working with those of similar ideas is necessary.  There is power in numbers, but only if there is a central, repeatable message.  Leadership makes a difference in how the message is received.  For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the leader of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.  His message was clear, legal protection against racial discrimination, and his method was peaceful protests.
  3. Violence will conflict with any message. The protests we see daily in the news are intermixed with rioting and looting.  Murder, theft, arson, and assault are occurring side by side with protests; much of it directed at successful businesses.  Some of the largest cities with increasing violence rates have, through their municipal leadership, allowed the destruction to continue while saying they agree with the protests.  Such city leader talk confuses things evermore.  The newest perception is that there is no such thing as “peaceful” protesters but that they are genuinely violent and will stop at nothing.
  4. The failure to connect the message with mainstream values. No one in the U.S. would seriously deny that justice is wrong or that racism is a good thing.  We all want the same thing in this regard.  Everyone agrees that American values of hard work, integrity, loyalty, and caring for all citizens, regardless of race, religion, gender, and background is the right thing.  We also believe that the law is to protect us against injustices.  Demands for slavery reparations, free stuff, and getting rid of the police are unacceptable ideas.  It goes against our collective grain.  Rioting and looting are also intolerable outlets for protesting.
  5. Emotional outbursts detract from the message. Degrading sarcasm, name-calling, profanity, and a host of emotionally-laden words are a distraction from the real message.  When our emotions get the best of us, we are less likely to use clear, straightforward language and are more apt to exaggerate, distort, as well as insult other people.  Such emotion means our message can be lost in a barrage of verbal garbage that obscures what we are trying to say or do.

When good messages are conflicted by failures in leadership, violence, emotional outbursts, and inability to connect to our value systems, the messages will be mixed or lost.  Failure is only a burnt police vehicle away.  President Reagan understood.  He emphasized that it was not just “my rhetoric or delivery” that carried him to the White House and a successful presidency, but that he spoke fundamental truths that the average American instinctively recognized, like the necessity of preserving individual freedom.  “What I said simply made sense to the [man] on the street.”

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “Why Conflicting Messages Exist

  1. Greg Heyman

    Indeed, a truly worthy article of your’s Gen. Satterfield. Great summary too. Many leadership websites, books, and articles do not want to take on this type of issue. #5 jumped out at me as the most appropriate in today’s whacko environment with “peaceful” protests, looting, burning, violence against police, and govt bodies everywhere supporting the destruction. I wonder what will be next. Emotion carries the day.

  2. Bryan Lee

    Another article for my leadership rucksack. I couldn’t agree more with your “message” Gen. Satterfield. We are simply prone to not be perfect (go figure). LOL.

    1. Anthony "Tony" Benson

      Same thoughts here. Bryan, good to see you back on these forum pages.

  3. JT Patterson

    I’ve spent a lot of time in professional settings, attending meetings, talking with employees, developing strategic plans for organizations, etc. My experience shows that confusing and mixed messages are one of the reasons so many employees have a hard time, quit and go elsewhere, or just give up and don’t work. Leaders have the responsibility to do something about it. First, always be on the lookout for confusing messages. Second, have someone help you oversee what you say and do. This way, leaders can have barriers to such messages and have a better, easier time of it as a leader.

    1. Harry B. Donner

      So have I JT and you are correct. In my area of business, I always had a boss that was ‘breathing down my neck’ to see what I was doing and watching what I said and did. He would immediately step in if I ever had conflicting messages. That is how I learned to be a better leader. Mentorship.

    2. Martin Shiell

      Excellent point JT and thanks for sharing your experience. I think most of those who are reading this website are probably more experienced but the articles and these comments are more targeted to the junior leader.

      1. Gil Johnson

        Yes, but that is not the intent of Gen. Satterfield’s leadership blog. We can learn from senior leaders and that is why I keep reading this blog. Like yesterdays article on ROUTINES. Good stuff.

  4. Nick Lighthouse

    Organizational leaders today routinely tell people to “Be empowered and innovative. Take risks;” while demanding at the same time “Make plan, and deliver on all your commitments.” If you think this drives people crazy, you’re with us. Mixed messaging is everywhere. It’s the job of leaders to unscrew this problem.

    1. Willie Shrumburger

      Right !!!!
      First, don’t pretend that this conflict doesn’t exist.
      Second, acknowledge that when people on your team act frustrated, confused, or hesitant.
      The solution begins there.

    2. Tony B. Custer

      So, change the mixed messages at the “local” level whenever you can, and help the higher-ups see the effects of these messages “on the ground.”

      1. Eva Easterbrook

        As leaders, we know to be sensitive about mixing our messages. When our staff receive mixed messages, the negative emotion naturally dominates, and becomes – in the minds of our staff – associated with the memory of the event. Discover how to avoid sending mixed signals to communicate more effectively. ?

  5. Fred Weber

    The most likely result of sending conflicting messages is neither the sender nor the receiver feels good about it.

    1. Georgie M.

      Contradictory messages are those that transmit dissonant information from the same source. Therefore, they’re paradoxical in nature. Good point Fred. ?

      1. Yusaf from Texas

        Thanks Georgie, thanks and well said.

  6. Eric Coda

    Good info, Gen. Satterfield. I think this is one of your better, more informative, articles of late. We all have conflicting messages, unintentional or inability to fix it. We all can do better. Recognizing the fact that we do have conflicts in our daily communications is the first step toward turning it around for better clarity.

    1. Darryl Sitterly

      Very true. Most would hide this fact from themselves and set low standards for each of us. That way, we cannot fail. But sadly, this doesn’t work very well in the real world.

    2. Mike Baker

      Yes, Eric, once again, spot-on with your comment. Identify the problem and then come up with a solution to fix it. Don’t hide the problem.

  7. Dennis Mathes

    Wow, if only the average politician from big cities would have read this. They would be much better off today.

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