Being tone-deaf is worse than having your words fall on deaf ears

When and how a message is presented can be just as important as the contents

Do you remember when you were a kid and you really wanted to tell your dad something important? For me, at least, it too frequently was an error of omission. In my rush to rid myself of guilt, I’d blurt out my confession, hoping for leniency as soon as my dad came in the door. With my bad luck it was always after he’d had a horrible day at work.

As they say, “timing is everything.” In business, one of the first lessons a manager must learn — sometimes the hard way — is to pick a time and place to deliver a message, either positive or negative. As in the case of the over-anxious kid who belts out the words without setting the stage, the reaction many times can be painfully negative.

A practiced and savvy executive must not only create the appropriate setting for communicating successfully, but must also be cognizant of the tone. This helps to ensure the message doesn’t fall on deaf ears. Today, headlines are overflowing with examples of business leaders, politicians and others who should know better, making the fatal or near-fatal mistake of incorrectly packaging not only the words but also the tone to maximize the message.

Here is a “how not to do it” example. A company decides to close a plant, lay off scores of workers and, in that same pronouncement, boasts of a huge new dividend for investors. By linking these actions in the same announcement, the company is being insensitive and utterly tone-deaf. Of course, the company is supposed to look for and execute on initiatives that improve efficiency and profitability. But it doesn’t pass the smell test to combine this somber message for some with positive news for others, particularly when many people may believe investors are already too richly rewarded.

A more effective implementation would be first to provide the harsh news of job terminations, while explaining how it will make the company more successful for all remaining employees and investors. Then amplify the message by revealing the outplacement assistance being provided to those adversely affected. A second announcement about increasing the dividend should come after a respectful period of lamenting for those laid off, so as not to rub salt in the wounds, and to affirm that the increase is a result of new efficiencies from optimizing the company’s plants and workforce.

Being tone-sensitive means being attuned to what is going to be said, how it’s said and the place in which it is said. Doing so can sometimes put form in front of substance, but it can also help avoid potential pitfalls that take on a life of their own.

We’ve all heard this other childhood admonishment, “Wait ’til your father gets home!” This should be modified to, “Wait ’til your dad gets home and the right mood has been set.” The latter is particularly critical for companies orchestrating the right tone for conveying important actions.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide.