Skip to content

The Next Faithful Step

Mixed Messages Cause Chaos

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

The Adult Education committee at my church consists of the pastor, me (a professor), and a retired couple. We plan out the speakers for our Adult Ed Sunday School class. We start by asking for ideas. One time, one of the laypeople suggested something like, “Maybe we could use one of those fill-in-the-blank books from the Christian bookstore.” I hated the idea because I did not think it was sophisticated enough for the adults in our class. But I did not want to embarrass the guy by telling him that. So I said, “OK, that’s a good idea. What are some other ideas?” And we never returned to his idea. I sent him a mixed message. I told him he had a good idea and then I ignored it.

Mixed messages often come up when organizations attempt to make changes. Leaders often use mixed messages as a way to shield themselves from the inconvenient by-products of change. They know that they cannot oppose the change itself. So they send a mixed message and expect their people to take the hint.

Think of a staff meeting like the one I visited the day before yesterday. The staff had recently approved a new mission statement. The problem was that the senior pastor had a pet project that did not fit under the new mission statement – a project that would make a big dent in the budget. At the staff meeting, the senior pastor sent a proposal to be considered (he was away). He said he supported the new mission statement and agreed with the idea that all ministries should fit under the priorities outlined in it. At the same time, he proposed that he be allowed to continue his pet project. None of the staff wanted to oppose him openly. An unsuspecting outsider (me) attending the meeting pointed out the obvious conflict. There was silence. Another pastor then said, “I think we have consensus that this is a good idea.” The Executive Pastor who was chairing the meeting followed that with, “OK, we’ll send this along to the board for action. And be sure to note in the minutes Scott’s good comment.” After the meeting, the Executive Pastor thanked me for my “helpful contribution.” When I saw another pastor in the hallway after the meeting, he told me about how frustrated he was because he was going to be stuck dealing with the collateral damage that the pastor’s proposal would cause. The minutes of the meeting said nothing about the obvious flaw. They could not. The staff needed to pretend the pastor had not violated the new mission statement. All this happened because the senior pastor sent a mixed message (i.e. I support the new mission statement; and I plan to violate it.)

Mixed messages create problems. The organizational scholar Chris Argyris has a name for this. With his tongue in his cheek, he describes “four easy steps to chaos.” If you want chaos in your organization, this is all you have to do.

  1. Send a mixed message
    e.g. “Your decision was a good one, and I’m overruling you.”
  2. Pretend it is not mixed.
    e.g. “You can be proud of your contribution.”
  3. Make the mixed message and the pretense undiscussable.
    e.g. “I feel good about this decision, and I’m sure you do too.”
  4. Make the undiscussability undiscussable.
    e.g. “Now that I’ve explained everything to your satisfaction, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?”

Mixed messages are not always the result of bad behavior. Often they come from competing commitments. When I ignored the man who suggested the fill-in-the-blank book for Adult Ed, my motives were not mean. I was committed to being kind to him. But I was more committed to having a sophisticated Adult Ed curriculum.

Sending a mixed message is a particular temptation for those with power in an organization. If you are in charge of a youth ministry or are the one planning an event for your soup kitchen, you have power. And when someone disagrees with you, it will be very tempting to take the path of least resistance – to pretend you have heard them while planning to ignore them. If you do this, you will create chaos in your organization and shut down honest conversation. And without honesty, there is no learning. Your motives may be pure (like me, you may be trying to preserve someone’s feelings) but in the end, you make it hard for people to feel understood or to be effective.

And what happened with that retired couple who were planning Adult Ed at my church? A few weeks after I ignored the suggestion about fill-in-the-blank books, they quit the committee. They did not quit because we did not follow their suggestion. They quit because I claimed to take them seriously and then ignored them. They quit because they felt the chaos of my mixed message.