When we hear the term “secret messages,” it may conjure up memories of passing notes in grade school, or James Bond spy thrillers, but there is another type of secret message wherein the sender of the message is one that is being kept in the dark.

Everyone sends messages unintentionally, but as business leaders, all eyes are on us and the impact of those messages is magnified.

For example:

  • A business owner arrives each morning at 9:15 and the whole office can tell if it will be a good day or bad based on the look on his face. As a result, the people in that business pay less attention to the company rules based on the fact that office hours start at 8 a.m. and the boss comes in over an hour late each day. And on days that start with a frown, his staff avoids him and is careful about what they say and do around him.
  • A customer is promised that their project will be done by 1 p.m. so the business owner works through lunch to make it happen. Others are inspired to put in an extra effort.
  • I was in a store recently that had a huge sign on the wall that read, “Our promise…” and a picture of an employee with their hand over their heart. The part of the sign where the promise was supposed to be stated was blank. The unintended message: “We make you no promises.”
  • A neighborhood business is infamous for having their neon “open” sign on regardless of whether they are open or closed. After customers are greeted by an open sign and a locked door a few times, they stop trying.
  • The company president has the only reserved parking spot and it is located right next to the door used by all employees. He parks his luxury car there, forcing his employees to walk right by it as they enter and exit the building.

In these cases, nary a word was spoken, but very loud messages were conveyed.

It is easy to minimize or rationalize this impact:

“I can come to work at any time I want; I’m the boss!” or “People really don’t pay attention to whether or not I smile. That’s ridiculous!” But there are very real implications to the messages we send.

In fact, it is these secret messages that truly set the tone for the business. A written policy carries little weight even in the best of circumstances, but it will be completely ignored if the words or actions of the leaders conflict with that policy. It is true that actions speak louder than words.

It is prudent to consider the many ways we send messages and explore how we might be sending a signal that is counterproductive.

  • Appearance. What message does my attire send? Do I wear the same thing everyday? Do I wear clothing that is blatantly expensive? How does my attire compare to others in the company, or our customers or visitors?
  • Casual conversation. What kind of jokes do I tell? When chatting with staff, do we talk about them and their interests, or about me and my interests?
  • Facilities. Is the image portrayed by our building the message we want to send? Is it consistent with how we actually act and consistent with how we promote the company?
  • Actions. Do I behave at least as well as I ask my staff to behave? Do I lead, positively, by example?
  • Demeanor. Do I inspire loyalty and high performance with my facial expressions and moods?
  • Words. Do the words I use reflect the best interest of the company? Am I consistent in my messaging? Do speak poorly of customers or staff behind their backs?

Even a small improvement to the intentionality of our messaging can go a long way and is well worth the effort.

Dave Bartholomew is retired after a career as a business adviser to leaders around the world. He and his wife Nancy also owned Simply Living Farm, a retailer of goods for a sustainable life. Prior to that he was CEO of several manufacturing companies in the outdoor recreation industry. He has authored three books, written numerous regular columns and taught at many universities.