When Good Intentions Go Bad

Crafting effective messages

Posted Nov 03, 2013

When Good Intentions Go Bad

Vickie, a recent college graduate, secured a coveted position at a prestigious chemical company. She completed each assigned task with passion and fervor. She kept up with new developments in the field and always sought new and more cost effective techniques to manufacature chemicals. One day, Vickie discovered an innovative method to reduce the cost of manufacturing a certain chemical. She went to her manager to report her discovery. “You’ve been doing this all wrong. I found a new and cheaper way to manufacture the chemical.” Much to her dismay, her manager dismissed her findings outright and admonished her to concentrate on her assigned work. Crushed, Vickie returned to her cubicle and vowed never to take the initiative again. Vickie’s intentions were good, but the manner in which she communicated her idea was not well thought out. Communication is more than conveying ideas just as innovation is more than the bottom line. Vickie failed to consider some basic psychological concepts of effective communication. Good communicators not only wordsmith but they also incorporate psychological components into their communications.

If I’m Right, Then You’re Wrong

People rarely consider the push-pull qualities of declarations such as: “I’m right” or “My way is better.” If you are right, then the other person is automatically assumed to be wrong. If your way is better, then the other person’s way is automatically assumed to be wrong. The I’m right your wrong paradigm forces people to assume a defensive posture to protect their egos, reputations, or for myriad other reasons. A person who takes a defensive posture is less likely to consider new ideas.

Us Against Them

Vickie used the pronouns “you” and “I.” The use of the pronouns “you” and “I” creates an adversarial environment. The “you” and “I” paradigm pits one person against another person. In Vickie’s case, she unintentionally created an oppositional atmosphere between her and her boss. Adversarial settings create winners and losers. Winners conquer; losers compromise. Adversarial relationships ignite competition, which is not contusive to effective communication.

 Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance triggers when a person holds two or more conflicting beliefs. When people experience cognitive dissonance, they become frustrated, angry, and experience psychological disequilibrium. In Vickie’s situation, she unintentionally created cognitive dissonance in her manager. If Vickie is right, then her manager is wrong. If Vickie is right, then she is smart and her manager is not smart. People experiencing cognitive dissonance have several options to regain equilibrium. In Vickie’s case, her manager could admit that she is right and that he is wrong. He could try to convince Vickie that his method is correct and that her method is not correct, or he could outright dismiss Vickie as an immature, well-meaning employee who needs to be put in her place. Vickie’s manager chose the latter option to resolve his dissonance. Intentionally or unintentionally inducing cognitive dissonance rarely produces a positive outcome.


People are egocentric; they think the world revolves around them. Vickie demonstrated her self-focus when she used the pronouns “I” and “you.” She elevated herself above her manager, thus unintentionally attacking his ego. Her manager’s thought process is predictable. “I’ve been a manager for 15 years. Who does this inexperienced, snot nosed college graduate think she is? Get some experience under your belt before you come prancing into my office and tell me I’ve been doing things wrong for 15 years. Go back to your cubicle and do as you are told.” In this instance, the manager’s ego trumped common sense and the all-important bottom line. Egos have hurt more people and have torpedoed more good ideas than there are stars in the sky.

Houston, The Ego has Landed

Instead of saying, “You’ve been doing this all wrong. I found a new and cheaper way to manufacture the chemical,” Vickie should have integrated some psychological concepts into her communication. The following illustrates a more effective message.

“Sir, I would like your advice on something that would make our company more profitable.”

Addressing her manager as “Sir,” shows respect and demonstrates that Vickie sees her manager as a superior. The introductory phrase “I would like your advice on something…” accomplishes five objectives. First, Vickie creates an inclusionary environment. The manager feels as though he is included in the process. Second, cognitive dissonance is avoided, thus increasing the probability that the manager will be open to new ideas. Third, the manager’s illusion of self-focus is bolstered. The manager will likely think, “Of course, Vickie is seeking my advice because I am intelligent and I have 15 years of experience.” Fourth, this introductory phrase could foster a mentor-mentee relationship. If a mentor-mentee relationship is established, then Vickie’s success also becomes her manager’s success. Fifth, showing the manager respect and acknowledging his expertise, makes him feel good about himself. The Golden Rule of friendship is: If you make other people feel good about themselves, they will like you. People who like you are likely to be more open to your suggestions. The use of the words “our company” signals that Vickie has emotional equity in the company and is a team player. The phrase “…make our company more profitable,” is very appealing, especially if the manager receives credit for an increased bottom line. When the manager gives his advice, he takes partial ownership of the idea or proposed project. When people feel as though they are part owners of a good idea or project, they enthusiastically advance the idea or project.

The Glory Pie

The downside to this approach is that Vickie must share the glory pie with her manager. At first glance, this is not palatable. Vickie is likely thinking the idea was hers and hers alone. She should get all the credit. People seldom take into account that the primary ingredient of a glory pie is good will. Glory has a short expiration date; good will has a long shelf life. Besides, everyone in the office knows that it was Vickie's idea, even if it is not openly stated. A good idea produces a large glory pie that can be cut into many pieces. Freely distributing the pieces increases likeability and the likelihood of future success.