Business – Communicating with Tact

© Mike Splane - October 2008

A few years ago I read a great book by Marilyn Moats Kennedy called "Office Politics." In it she points out that there are two kinds of power in organizations, formal and informal. Formal authority is what you have as a result of your position in the hierarchy. It consists of the ability to order people to do things, and to apply positive and negative consequences to control how people act. Informal authority is your ability to influence people to act on your behalf even when they don't have to.

Kennedy claims that it is far more effective to rely on informal power to get things done. You don’t make enemies and people are happier to work with and for you.  There are exceptions. Formal authority, the use of direct commands, is extremely useful in emergencies.

She claims that when you over-use formal authority it actually undermines your informal authority. I thought this was one of the key insights from the book. When you have to make a threat in order to get something accomplished, it shows you don’t have enough influence. You need to stop and take a good look at your management style.  

So how do you apply this idea of informal authority? A lot depends on the way you communicate. Here are a few things I observed in the business world.

If you put something negative in writing about another person, it can be used later in a different context to hurt that person. Nobody likes that. So I was very careful to offer my advice and constructive criticisms only in a face to face setting and only in private. Embarrassing people, or putting them in a position to be embarrassed later, is counter-productive and creates enemies.

Praise, on the other hand, was offered both face to face and in writing, and was often made publicly. A kind word here and there will do wonders for how others perceive you and will help you all through your career.

One thing I often appreciated in a boss is somebody who let me know where I stood. Negative feedback, although often painful to hear, helped me identify where I went wrong and where I needed to grow. But I wanted this done in private.

Another lesson I took from the corporate world, especially as a supervisor, was never, never, never say or do anything while you are angry. Sometimes I'd get so angry I had to write a scathing email or letter, but I was always careful never to actually send this or show it to anyone. It helped me let off steam. A day or so later I'd reread the email, have a good laugh at my over-reaction, feel relieved that I had not sent it, and then would deal with the problem in an adult manner.

Tone of a communication is important too. Starting an email or memo with Hello Mike, Hi Mike, or Mike, or leaving off the salutation altogether will each set different tones. Starting a sentence with "You" is very dangerous. People often get overly defensive when they see that word, especially when it is attached to criticism, blame, or advice. Using somebody’s name can often have the same effect. Putting something in the form of a question, including the word we and phrasing it as a hypothetical, helps to convey the message in a non-threatening way. "Hi, Mike. Next time this comes up, what should we do differently?" conveys the message that Mike made a mistake and does so in a non-threatening style.

Contradicting somebody in public is also a bit touchy. I liked how this was handled by the Sioux tribal leaders in the movie "Dances with Wolves." After each person spoke, the next person would start off with a positive statement highlighting something positive in the previous speaker’s remarks. After that he could discuss why he disagreed, without the previous speaker "losing face."

In situations where I wasn’t sure how to act, I would ask myself how I would like to be treated if I was in the other person’s place. That question usually helped me find my way.