Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


The Hierarchy of Leadership Communication

Volume: October 2016

Lester receives an email from a customer that makes his blood boil. He knows he should calm down before responding, and he gives himself a few hours to do so. As he composes his response, he attempts to be as objective as possible. He reviews his reply thoroughly and deems it to be rational and professional. Lester is still steamed about the initial email, but he feels the need to respond. He hits send. Very soon thereafter, a potpourri of other things begin hitting – the fan that is. Lester is sent an urgent message by his boss. Apparently, the client is fuming about Lester’s most recent correspondence, and they went straight over Lester’s head in order to threaten to move their business elsewhere. Lester is dumbfounded. Just prior to entering his boss’s office, he reads a copy of the email he sent to the customer. Hmmm, it does not seem to read the way Lester intended. Did the words mysteriously juxtapose between the time Lester sent the email and now? Lester enters the office sheepishly, fearing that a distasteful earful from his boss awaits. 

Has anything like Lester’s folly ever happened to you? Most of us have had experiences when, upon retrospect, we wished we had not touched the Send button. It is an awful feeling, and the results of a “flame” email can include any or all of the following:

  • A wounded relationship
  • Hurting someone’s feelings
  • Crushing what was previously solid rapport
  • Needing a boatload of time to mend fences
  • Losing a once loyal and profitable customer

In Lester’s example above, the customer did not move their business. Luckily, Lester’s boss was able to calm the customer down. Lester actually continued to manage the account. Further, since his boss views Lester as a solid team member, he perceived the situation as a good developmental opportunity. Lester was relieved that the focus of the conversation with his boss centered on learning and not on admonishment. So what lessons did Lester learn? Answer: Quite an array. 

Lesson 1Use a proofing buddy. One of the cardinal rules of sending important correspondence is to have it reviewed by a trusted colleague prior to mailing. If Lester had followed this one simple rule, he would have saved himself a world of pain. It was also recommended to Lester that he learn more about the essential email habits needed in today’s business world.

Lesson 2: Keep organizational sensitivity in the forefront of your mind. In other words, when a potential conflict arises with a customer, colleague, or vendor, give your boss or an appropriate team member a heads up. You do not have to request their immediate involvement in the issue, but keep them informed about what transpires. Often times, your boss or colleagues will share sage advice that can reduce the risk of losing a customer, while reducing your burgeoning stress level.

Lesson 3: Abide by the Hierarchy of Communication. This is the biggest lesson that Lester learned. He never thought of prioritizing modes of communication based on their impact. If he had, he would have realized that you should never answer an email that makes your blood boil with another email. Rather, you should elevate your response to a higher-impact means of communication. The following is the hierarchy of communication as it was laid out to Lester by his boss.

  • Level 1: In-person communication. This is the big kahuna of interpersonal communication. A face-to-face meeting allows us to employ every aspect of powerful communication. We are able to witness the other person’s body language as they speak. More importantly, we see their authentic reactions to our comments and hear their tone of voice. Studies have shown that body language accounts for 55% of the impact of communication, and tone of voice carries 38% of the impact. As such, if you have a ticklish situation or an important sale to close, do not miss out on an opportunity to get in front of the other person.
  • Level 2: Webex, Skype, and other real-time technology tools. While not as powerful as in-person communication, this venue allows everyone to see facial expressions and experience a few other non-verbal cues.
  • Level 3: Telephone. No body language here, but still the ability to hear tone of voice. The telephone allows us to use our tone of voice to reinforce our message. In addition, we receive immediate tone of voice feedback from our listeners. This would have been the appropriate elevation of communication for Lester to pursue in response to his customer’s scathing email.
  • Level 4: Email. The only tone of voice we have with email is word choice, structure, and capitalization. Avoid the latter. A nice advantage that email possesses over the telephone is that the information can be read numerous times. Also, you have time to compose your response. The trouble is, if you are in a good mood and insert something such as a light joke, and the receiver is in a bad mood, they could misinterpret your humor. It is usually wise to play it straight with this medium. Note: Lester broke a big law regarding the hierarchy of communication when he responded in electronic format to a confusing customer email. He needed to upgrade at least one level to telephone communication if he wanted to give himself the best chance of smoothly defusing a charged situation with a customer.
  • Level 5: Letter. Typically I rate a letter received in the mail above email – I like the personal touch. For our purposes here, I did not because of the time delay associated with responding to a written letter. Email has an advantage due to its rapid response-ability. Tip: just like you would never want a typo or grammar error in a stamped letter, keep to the same standard when you prepare email correspondence.
  • Level 6: Instant messenger. It is quick, it is easy, and it is conversational. A more casual tone is allowed with instant messenger (IM), as well as a level of forgiveness regarding typos and abbreviations. If your customer or internal colleagues like to IM, have a ball. If not, remain in the world of email, and keep your standard of professionalism elevated as such.
  • Level 7: Text messaging. Welcome to the low man on the totem pole regarding communication. Rapid fire, super casual, often filled with typos and grammatical errors. Don’t even talk to me about acronyms – yikes! Do I sound old school? You betcha. Do I receive and send text messages? Absolutely. Here is my tip: while there is a growing trend in sending text messages, be careful with customers – make certain they are receptive to text correspondence (especially if they are a boomer or older).

Bottom Line: So there you have it ladies and gentlemen, the Lester Lessons. Next time some business interaction makes your blood boil, remember to review the hierarchy of communication. Then, take a chill pill and think strategically. The positive outcomes will amaze you.

Until next time, be well.

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