Intended Consequences in your Chapter Communications

Lisa Junker challenges us to think about the potential alternative interpretations of what we say as we move through our day in her posting More influence than you think. Her example illustrates a familiar situation in today’s market: “We’re going through a rough time” can be interpreted as “We’re all going to lose our jobs” by a nervous employee.

My partner Peter Houstle uses the phrase “unintended consequences” to describe the phenomenon which we see all too requently in national-chapter relationships. For example, recently we had a national organization request (actually more of demand) that we take several years of financials and reorganize based on a format they provided. The reason was unclear. 

In another situation, the message from national regarding the broadcast email policy included the phrases “the marketing department reserves the right to refuse this service…” and “Please note:  Due to our extremely limited resources…” with liberal use of boldface and red type.

The most difficult communication though was the one where we (the chapter) were told to respond to the IRS letter and pay the penalty for late submission of 990 which was handled by national.

At the chapter level all three of these examples are heard much differently than I’m assuming the national office meant (at least let me give them the benefit of doubt). In the first, we heard “you don’t have anything else of critical importance to do.” Number 2 suggests that the chapter is definitely down on the priority list and possibly at the bottom if things continue to get worse. Number 3 is simply teaching us not to trust national to get things done – and that irresponsibility is acceptable.

Each of these cases frustrated the local boards and their staff making them less likely to cooperate. When you are considering working with chapters – who are mix of volunteers and staff, and who are members – it is worth doing as Lisa suggests: think about how your body language, voice, and overall attitude communicates as well. 

Think about where your chapter leader may get this message (in their work in-box, at home after a busy work day, at a leadership conference far away from where they can act on it). 

Consider where it may fall on their list of priorities. And remember that chapter leaders generally spend less than 10% of their professional life focused on the duties of their chapter. This means that there attention is distracted and their focus limited. Think of it as if each time they come to the table they are essentially going through a quick re-orientation. So you may think you’ve explained everything, but they only heard about 40% of it, mentally filed 15% of that and can quickly recall 10% of that.

Do you take the time to consider potential unintended readings of your words and actions in working with your chapters?