Mixed Signals And The Art Of Communication

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.

–George Bernard Shaw

Every good leader knows the value and importance of good communication. Leaders succeed or fail based on it. Organizations rise and fall because of it. To say that good communication is essential to your success as a leader is clearly an understatement.

In her book, Fearless Leadership, Carey D. Lohrenz shares a story of just what can happen when communication does not take place as it should:

Failure to communicate effectively can have disastrous results. Consider this true story, not the only one of its kind: A young Navy sailor was working the flight deck at night. Needing to cross the flight deck in the few seconds available between aircraft landing, the sailor signaled the arresting gear officer by waving his flashlight vertically. After getting acknowledgment from the arresting gear officer via the waving of a green flashlight vertically, the sailor sprinted across the pitch black landing area.

When looking to cross back over, the sailor once again signaled to the arresting officer and received the same vertical flashlight wave-only in red. The sailor knew that the vertical waving meant it was okay to cross, but didn’t know that the color of the flashlight was a critical piece of information. On this ship, green meant “go” while red meant “stand fast.” Confusion in communication signals almost cost this sailor his life.

While the decisions you make regarding communication may not carry the same life or death consequences, it does, nevertheless, carry important implications for your team. The last thing they need from those in leadership is mixed signals. Here are some of the most common mixed signals and what to do about them.

Mixed signals occur when you say one thing and do another

This is perhaps the most common mixed signal out there. It’s when you say one thing and do another. As a result, people are not on the same page, goals and objectives become muddled, and trust is compromised.

As a leader, you must develop consistency in your communication and do what you say. If circumstances warrant a change in a previously communicated directive or course of action, clarify it in person and do it in a timely manner. As a leader, you don’t like surprises and neither do your people.

Mixed signals occur when you keep your people apart

Ineffective communication occurs when you keep your team members apart instead of bringing them together. Instead of building a unified and cohesive team, mixed signals occur in communication when your people get their information second or third hand. This is a prescription for disastrous communication and team morale.

If you want to facilitate strong communication within your organization you must bring your people together, not keep them apart. Make it your practice to be a bridge builder. Communication flourishes when people are connected.

Mixed signals occur when you fail to connect on a personal level

The secret sauce of establishing good communication within your organization is being a leader who knows how to connect with his or her people. The good news is that it can happen. The bad news is that it takes a lot of work. But until you are relationally invested in the people you lead you will always run the risk of mixed signals and poor communication.

Whether it’s communication or any number of related issues within your organization, it begins when you learn to connect with your people. it’s out of that connection and the relationships you build that communication works

Stop with the mixed signals – keep your word, bring your people together, and connect on a personal level. It will make all the difference in the world to your leadership and to your people.


Doug Dickerson
Doug Dickerson
DOUG has been speaking to audiences in the U.S. and overseas for more than 30 years. Doug knows how to spin a story, make you laugh, and how to challenge your traditional ways of thinking about leadership. Most of all, Doug is committed to helping you grow as a leader. Doug is a graduate of Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida and studied Clinical Pastoral Education at Palmetto Baptist Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina. While his leadership expertise has its roots in ministry and teaching. His background also includes public relations and business. Doug understands the necessity of leadership development and why creating a leadership culture in your organization is critical to your success. He is the author of four leadership books including: Leaders Without Borders, 9 Essentials for Everyday Leaders, Great Leaders Wanted, It Only Takes a Minute: Daily Inspiration for Leaders on the Move, and Leadership by the Numbers. As a speaker, Doug delivers practical and applicable leadership insights with a dose of humor and authenticity that endears him to a wide range of audiences. Doug is a John Maxwell Team member.

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  1. At the start of a merger, I had the opportunity to talk to the CEO from each of the companies. One CEO was very systemic, methodical. It was like hearing a doctor describe a long and complex surgery. Then there was the other CEO, a person that was entertaining, informative and shook your hand in such a way that you were mesmerized. While you talked, she hung on to your every word. I don’t remember much about the systemic CEO. I will never forget that mesmerizing CEO.