muddled message

Good communication from management is crucial to the success of any business. In our experience, when employers are direct, even candid, with their employees, they are more likely to get the work product that they desire. However, this can be a difficult task for some.

Many managers find it difficult to be direct with their employees. Whether they fear being seen as an overbearing boss or just don’t have experience directly communicating their needs, they rely on indirect methods when interacting with employees. These methods often fail and may even encourage poor behavior.

When interacting with employees, management should avoid using the following indirect communication styles.


Many people use sarcasm regularly in their daily lives. It’s an easy way to express dislike for something without direct confrontation. Unfortunately, sarcasm has several downsides when used by management in the workplace.

Sarcasm relies on employees being able to correctly interpret the intonation of someone they only know in a work setting. Typically, for sarcasm to be effective, an employee must ignore the exact words that their boss is saying and do the opposite. This is not behavior to encourage.


Workplace gossip is rarely something that should be encouraged, let alone propagated by management. When people are talking about an employee behind their back, that employee will often feel harassed, which can lead to increasingly worse behavior. Gossiping about underperforming employees is unlikely to get them to improve.

Furthermore, when management starts to gossip about an underperforming employee, it has the potential to create legal problems for the company. Employee performance or discipline is a confidential matter. Revealing that information through gossip could make the business liable for a civil action brought by the employee.

Freeze Out

When an employee is “frozen out,” their boss actively ignores them while having visible positive interactions with nearly all other employees. The idea behind freezing out an underperforming employee is that they will recognize that everyone else is not getting frozen out and get the hint that they need to change their behavior.

This tactic has similar problems to engaging in gossip about an underperforming employee. Even if the targeted worker recognizes that they are not receiving the same level of positive attention, that doesn’t mean that they will improve the way they perform at work. 

In fact, many employees respond with even lower performance because they no longer feel respected by the company they work for.

When an employee gets frozen out, it can appear as though they are being harassed. And since the action doesn’t come with any notice of bad behavior, it may appear to be a case of impermissible bias to the targeted employee.


Another way that many managers avoid being direct is by inserting humor into their pronouncements. The belief is that something like a note that sloppy work needs to be improved may not feel as hurtful if it is filled with light quips and smiley face emoticons.

While this may be true in some instances, humor is also likely to prevent employees from taking rebukes or criticism seriously. 

It’s hard for most people to believe that their manager would joke about poor performance if it were a serious problem. As a result, employees generally show little improvement, even when they acknowledge they aren’t living up to expectations.

Using a Third Party

Another way that management might avoid confrontation is by passing along an unpleasant message through a third party. This isn’t necessarily a problem when that third party is in the direct chain of command over the employee. But when they are not, it’s unlikely the employee will heed the message.

If an employee is informed about negative behavior by someone who isn’t in their direct chain of command, they may not believe it. Even worse, it could create tension between the employee and whoever was acting as a spokesperson for management.

Even if the employee accepts that the criticism came from their boss, they might insist on an in-person meeting so they can hear it directly. Thus, the manager does not avoid confrontation as they intended. Instead, they must deal directly with the employee, who is likely to be combative from the start.

Mass Communication

While mass communication can have value in a business setting, it’s not an effective way to deal with individual employees. Calling out an employee in front of everyone in the company or in one department is a surefire way to result in bad blood. In the best-case scenario, they will quit, and in the worst-case scenario, they may start to sabotage the company.

Even worse, some managers will just hint that certain workers are underperforming without naming names. This creates discomfort for almost all employees, even those who weren’t being targeted.

How to Be Direct Without Confrontation

Consider that most managers want to avoid confrontation with employees whenever possible. This is what often leads to poor forms of communication. Unfortunately, as previously described, it is a management style that muddles the message.

Instead, managers should avoid confrontation while still being direct with employees. Some employees will attempt to avoid direct communication because they also fear confrontation. To assuage their fears and make candid communication easier for everyone, management should consider:

  • Fostering a culture of trust with employees
  • Frequently communicating with employees
  • Be as transparent as the situation allows
  • Requesting responses after any direct correspondence
  • Verbalizing points even when also using non-verbal cues
  • Listening and responding to concerns and complaints promptly
  • Tracking communication efficacy and adjusting when an approach isn’t working
  • Giving positive examples to counter criticism (without heaping praise on others)
  • Prioritizing direct communication like email, messaging, or in-person discussions

We have found that direct communication is extremely effective when everybody is on the same page about the goals and direction of the company. There’s no teacher like experience. Our team has helped build and grow successful, thriving teams in law firms nationwide. So, if you want to discuss challenges or hear more management tips, Book a Discovery Call with Woven Legal.


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