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For this Discussion, review the case study by Lawler et al. (2008) “Why Are We Losing All Our Good People?” . Reflect on how communication issues at the architectural firm affected the job performance and commitment of its employees. Then examine the solutions proposed by the four experts who replied to this case study.With these thoughts in mind: Explain whose advice you would most closely follow to resolve the problems at the firm, whose you would not, and provide a rationale for your choices. Use the Learning Resources to support your rationale. Finally, explain how you would ensure that effective lines of communication are open at your organization or one with which you are familiar. Include in your explanation the unique considerations you must keep in mind to ensure open communication among individuals who are from different cultures or work remotely from their homes or other offices.


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May 2011
reprint F1105D
Defend Your Research
Effective Managers
Say the Same
Thing Twice
(Or More)
by Tsedal Neeley and Paul Leonardi
This document is authorized for use only in Laureate Education, Inc.’s WAL WMBA 6010 Managing People and Promoting Collaboration at Laureate Education – Baltimore from Dec 2018 to
Feb 2020.
Idea watch
Defend Your Research
HBR puts some surprising findings to the test
Effective Managers
Say the Same Thing
Twice (or More)
The finding: To get employees to do something, managers need
to ask them at least twice.
The research: A team led by professors Neeley and Leonardi
shadowed 13 managers in six companies for more than 250
hours, recording every communication the managers sent and
received. The researchers discovered that one of every seven
communications by the managers was completely redundant with
a previous communication using a different technology. They also
saw that the managers who were deliberately redundant moved
their projects forward faster and more smoothly.
The challenge: If we communicate clearly, do we really still have
to repeat ourselves? Isn’t that inefficient? Professors Neeley and
Leonardi, defend your research.
Neeley: We know that the effective managers repeated themselves at least once,
and we often observed managers who sent
three or four redundant communications.
We saw some clear patterns with regard
to who did this and how. For example,
we divided our managers into two types:
those with formal power and those without it. We found that those without power
planned their redundant communications
and that frequently very little time passed
between their first message and their
HBR: They actually intended to say the
same thing twice from the outset?
Leonardi: It was very deliberate. One
manager we observed worked on an e-mail
for 20 minutes right after explaining his
request to the employee in a conversation.
He not only was aware of the redundancy
but took the time to make sure the two
communications said the same thing.
THE MEDIUM of the Messages
Face-to-face meetings and e-mail were the most popular forms of communication used by managers.
2 Harvard Business Review May 2011
Tsedal Neeley
([email protected])
is an assistant
professor in the
behavior unit at
Harvard Business
Neeley: Managers with power, however,
were redundant in a more reactive way.
We found that they think they can tell
people what to do just once, but the lack of
an adequate response forces them to send
a redundant message.
Were both approaches equally effective?
Neeley: Managers without power who
were deliberately redundant moved the
needle faster. The managers with power
got as much done, but it look them longer,
and they spent more time doing damage control or in crisis mode because
they’d assumed their requests were being
fulfilled before realizing they needed to
follow up.
Leonardi: We don’t have data showing
that one group outperformed the other
on meeting project deadlines or budgets.
But we saw a difference in how employees
responded to the two groups when it came
to liking and respecting managers versus
getting annoyed by them. People had
more esteem for managers without power.
Does technology play a role in all this?
It’s so easy to bombard people with
messages now.
Neeley: Only partly. What’s equally impor-
tant is that the nature of work has changed.
We’ve moved toward project-based teams.
We form them, work, disband, form new
cell phone
Paul Leonardi
([email protected]
is the Allen K. and
Johnnie Cordell
Breed Junior
Professor of Design
at Northwestern
voice mail
This document is authorized for use only in Laureate Education, Inc.’s WAL WMBA 6010 Managing People and Promoting Collaboration at Laureate Education – Baltimore from Dec 2018 to
Feb 2020.
For article reprints call 800-988-0886 or 617-783-7500, or visit
Repeat to Succeed
Managers without formal
power sent more redundant messages than
managers with formal
power, but also got tasks
done faster and with fewer
hiccups. Managers with
power appeared to assume
employees would fill their
requests and had to deal
with more blow-ups when
they didn’t.
sent by Managers
without formal power
Percentage of
messages that
were redundant
teams, and so on. You end up with team
leaders without much management experience and also less trust in those leaders.
The social and organizational dynamics
are such that you can’t just tell people
what to do anymore. They may not work
for you.
Leonardi: We’re so bred to believe that
clarity is the key to being a better communicator. The literature says pick the best
medium for the job, and anything else is
wasteful. This research suggests that’s not
true. You need to use multiple media. It’s
not necessarily just about clarity. It’s about
making your presence felt. Employees
are getting pulled in many directions and
reporting to lots of people and getting tons
of communications. So how do you keep
your issues top of mind? Redundancy is a
way to do that.
Managers complain about information
overload all the time. Now we find out
they’re creating it by being redundant!
Neeley: All the technologies available—
phone, e-mail, instant message, shared
folders, WebEx—increase the frequency
of communication. Redundancy helps
your message get through lots of messages. Gives it more weight. I also believe
managers have started strategizing on how
to be redundant. Those in our research
also seemed to be selecting different media
pairings to achieve different goals.
What patterns did you see?
Leonardi: Managers with authority started
with a delayed communication—one that
may not be received right away, like an
e-mail or voice mail. When things didn’t
get done, they’d shoot off an instant com-
sent by Managers
with formal power
munication. Managers without power did
the opposite. They started with an instant
communication, often a face-to-face conversation, and then followed up with
a delayed message. Think about it: Man­
agers with power assume their authority
motivates others. Managers without it
need to get buy-in, so their first message is
for motivation. The follow-up is to document something, remind people they’ve
made a commitment so that it doesn’t fall
off their radar.
Neeley: We noted a qualitative difference
in the content of the messages, too. As you
might expect, managers without authority
did not use directive messages as much.
They used persuasion more.
Were managers surprised to hear that
they were being redundant?
Leonardi: If anything, they would look at
us as if to say, “Seriously, you think this is
interesting? This is how it works. Of course
I follow up with another message.”
Tell me what’s next in redundant
communication research.
Leonardi: Fatigue is an interesting ques-
tion. Is there a redundancy threshold? Will
people eventually say, “Enough—stop
communicating with me”?
Tell me what’s next in redundant
communication research.
Neeley: [Laughs] The other thing that
would be fascinating is to see how this
behavior spreads. Are the employees who
receive the repeat messages picking up
those norms? Do they do it at work? In
their personal lives? And going forward,
what will that mean?
HBR Reprint F1105D
The Revival of Smart
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16425_HBR_1third_vert.indd 1
12/3/10 1:16 PM
Taking the Stress Out of
Stressful Conversations
by Holly Weeks
Reprint r0107h
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July–August 2001
HBR Case Study
Should This Team Be Saved?
Hollis Heimbouch
First Person
Transforming a Conservative Company –
One Laugh at a Time
Katherine M. Hudson
Different Voice
How to Win the Blame Game
David G. Baldwin
Managing for Value:
It’s Not Just About the Numbers
Philippe Haspeslagh, Tomo Noda,
and Fares Boulos
Lead for Loyalty
Frederick F. Reichheld
The Right Way to Be Fired
Laurence J. Stybel and Maryanne Peabody
Don’t Homogenize, Synchronize
Mohanbir Sawhney
Taking the Stress Out of
Stressful Conversations
Holly Weeks
Best Practice
Five Strategies of Successful
Part-Time Work
Vivien Corwin, Thomas B. Lawrence,
and Peter J. Frost
Tool Kit
Tread Lightly Through These
Accounting Minefields
H. David Sherman and S. David Young
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Feb 2020.
We all get caught in conversations
fraught with emotion. Usually, these
interactions end badly – but they
don’t have to, thanks to a handful of
techniques you can apply unilaterally.
by Holly Weeks
just the kind of animal we are. We chatter and tattle and gossip
and jest. But sometimes – more often than
we’d like – we have stressful conversations, those sensitive exchanges that can hurt or haunt us in ways no
other kind of talking does. Stressful conversations are
unavoidable in life, and in business they can run the
gamut from firing a subordinate to, curiously enough,
receiving praise. But whatever the context, stressful
conversations differ from other conversations because
of the emotional loads they carry. These conversations
call up embarrassment, confusion, anxiety, anger, pain,
Copyright © 2001 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
This document is authorized for use only in Laureate Education, Inc.’s WAL WMBA 6010 Managing People and Promoting Collaboration at Laureate Education – Baltimore from Dec 2018 to
Feb 2020.
Ta k i n g t h e S t re s s O u t o f S t re s s f u l Co n v e r s at i o n s
or fear – if not in us, then in our counterparts. Indeed,
stressful conversations cause such anxiety that most people simply avoid them. This strategy is not necessarily
wrong. One of the first rules of engagement, after all, is to
pick your battles. Yet sometimes it can be extremely costly
to dodge issues, appease difficult people, and smooth over
antagonisms because the fact is that avoidance usually
makes a problem or relationship worse.
Since stressful conversations are so common – and so
painful – why don’t we work harder to improve them?
The reason is precisely because our feelings are so enmeshed. When we are not emotionally entangled in an
issue, we know that conflict is normal, that it can be resolved – or at least managed. But when feelings get stirred
up, most of us are thrown off balance. Like a quarterback
who chokes in a tight play, we lose all hope of ever making it to the goal line.
For the past 20 years, I have been teaching classes and
conducting workshops at some of the top corporations
and universities in the United States on how to communicate during stressful conversations. With classrooms as my
laboratory, I have learned that most people feel incapable
of talking through sensitive issues. It’s as though all our
skills go out the window and we can’t think usefully about
what’s happening or what we could do to get good results.
Stressful conversations, though, need not be this way.
I have seen that managers can improve difficult conversations unilaterally if they approach them with greater
self-awareness, rehearse them in advance, and apply just
three proven communication techniques. Don’t misunderstand me: There will never be a cookie-cutter approach
to stressful conversations. There are too many variables
and too much tension, and the interactions between
people in difficult situations are always unique. Yet nearly
every stressful conversation can be seen as an amalgam of
a limited number of basic conversations, each with its
own distinct set of problems. In the following pages,
we’ll explore how you can anticipate and handle those
problems. But first, let’s look at the three basic stressful
conversations that we bump up against most often in the
“I Have Bad News for You”
Delivering unpleasant news is usually difficult for both
parties. The speaker is often tense, and the listener is
apprehensive about where the conversation is headed.
Consider David, the director of a nonprofit institution.
He was in the uncomfortable position of needing to talk
with an ambitious researcher, Jeremy, who had a much
higher opinion of his job performance than others in the
organization did. The complication for David was that,
in the past, Jeremy had received artificially high evaluations. There were several reasons for this. One had to do
with the organization’s culture: The nonprofit was not a
confrontational kind of place. Additionally, Jeremy had
tremendous confidence in both his own abilities and the
quality of his academic background. Together with his defensive response to even the mildest criticism, this confidence led others – including David – to let slide discussions of weaknesses that were interfering with Jeremy’s
ability to deliver high-quality work. Jeremy had a cutting
sense of humor, for instance, which had offended people
inside and outside his unit. No one had ever said anything
to him directly, but as time passed, more and more people
were reluctant to work with him. Given that Jeremy had
received almost no concrete criticism over the years, his
biting style was now entrenched and the staff was restive.
In conversations like this, the main challenge is to get
off to the right start. If the exchange starts off reasonably
well, the rest of it has a good chance of going well. But if
the opening goes badly, it threatens to bleed forward into
the rest of the conversation. In an effort to be gentle,
many people start these conversations on a light note.
And that was just what David did, opening with, “How
about those Red Sox?”
Naturally Jeremy got the wrong idea about where
David was heading; he remained his usual cocky, superior
self. Sensing this, David felt he had to take off the velvet
gloves. The conversation quickly became brutally honest,
and David did almost all the talking. When the monologue was over, Jeremy stared icily at the floor. He got up
in stiff silence and left. David was relieved. From his point
of view, the interaction had been painful but swift. There
was not too much blood on the floor, he observed wryly.
But two days later, Jeremy handed in his resignation, taking a lot of institutional memory – and talent – with him.
“What’s Going On Here?”
Often we have stressful conversations thrust upon us.
Indeed, some of the worst conversations – especially for
people who are conflict averse – are the altogether unexpected ones that break out like crackling summer storms.
Suddenly the conversation becomes intensely charged
emotionally, and electricity flies in all directions. What’s
worse, nothing makes sense. We seem to have been drawn
into a black cloud of twisted logic and altered sensibilities.
Consider the case of Elizabeth and Rafael. They were
team leaders working together on a project for a major
consulting firm. It seemed that everything that could have
gone wrong on the project had, and the work was badly
bogged down. The two consultants were meeting to revise
their schedule, given the delays, and to divide up the discouraging tasks for the week ahead. As they talked, ElizaHolly Weeks is an independent consultant and the president
of WritingWorks and SpeakingWorks in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also teaches at the Radcliffe Institute of Harvard
University in Cambridge.
harvard business review
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Feb 2020.
Ta k i n g t h e S t re s s O u t o f S t re s s f u l Co n v e r s at i o n s
beth wrote and erased on the white board. When she had
finished, she looked at Rafael and said matter-of-factly,
“Is that it, then?”
Rafael clenched his teeth in frustration.“If you say so,”
he sniped.
Elizabeth recoiled. She instantly replayed the exchange
in her mind but couldn’t figure out what had provoked
Rafael. His reaction seemed completely disconnected
from her comment. The most common reaction of someone in Elizabeth’s place is to guiltily defend herself by
denying Rafael’s unspoken accusation. But Elizabeth was
uneasy with confrontation so she tried appeasement.
“Rafael,”she stammered,“I’m sorry. Is something wrong?”
“Who put you in charge?”he retorted.“Who told you to
assign work to me?”
Clearly, Rafael and Elizabeth have just happened into
a difficult conversation. Some transgression has occurred,
but Elizabeth doesn’t know exactly what it is. She feels
blindsided – her attempt to expedite the task at hand has
clearly been misconstrued. Rafael feels he’s been put in a
position of inferiority by what he sees as Elizabeth’s controlling behavior. Inexplicably, there seem to be more
than two people taking part in this conversation, and the
invisible parties are creating lots of static. What childhood
experience, we may wonder, is causing Elizabeth to assume that Rafael’s tension is automatically her fault? And
who is influencing Rafael’s perception that Elizabeth is
taking over? Could it be his father? His wife? It’s impossible to tell. At the same time, it’s hard for us to escape the
feeling that Rafael is overreacting when he challenges
Elizabeth about her alleged need to take control.
Elizabeth felt Rafael’s resentment like a wave and she
apologized again. “Sorry. How do you want the work divided?” Deferring to Rafael in this way smoothed the
strained atmosphere for the time being. But it set a precedent for unequal status that neither Elizabeth nor the
company believed was correct. Worse, though Rafael and
Elizabeth remained on the same team after their painful
exchange, Elizabeth chafed under the status change and
three months later transferred out of the project.
presentation to a client, and the information was weak
and disorganized. She and the team had not been able to
answer even basic questions. The client had been patient,
then quiet, then clearly exasperated. When the presentation really started to fall apart, the client put the team on
the spot with questions that made them look increasingly
On this particular day, Nick was not part of the presenting team; he was simply observing. He was as surprised as the client at Karen’s poor performance. After
the client left, he asked Karen what happened. She lashed
out at him defensively: “You’re not my boss, so don’t start
patronizing me. You always undercut me no matter what
I do.” Karen continued to shout at Nick, her antagonism
palpable. Each time he spoke, she interrupted him with
accusations and threats: “I can’t wait to see how you like
it when people leave you flailing in the wind.” Nick
tried to remain reasonable, but Karen didn’t wind down.
“Karen,” he said, “pull yourself together. You are twisting
every word I say.”
Here, Nick’s problem is not that Karen is using a
panoply of thwarting tactics, but that all her tactics –
accusation, distortion, and digression – are aggressive.
This raises the stakes considerably. Most of us are vulnerable to aggressive tactics because we don’t know whether,
or how …
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