By Kelly S. Riggs

Communication makes the world go ’round. Nowhere is that more true than in the corporate world, where everything is better when people are communicating effectively and consistently. It stands to reason that “no communication” is the death knell for any organization, but what does bad communication do to a company? Is it worse than no communication whatsoever?

The results of no communication are pretty clear: confusion, lack of direction, disengagement, and so on. A lack of communication can create resentment among employees, leaving them to speculate as to what is really happening within the company. John Hamm commented on this all-too-common issue in a 2006 Harvard Business Review article:

In the absence of clear communication that satisfies the urgent desire to know what the boss is really thinking, people imagine all kinds of motives. The result is often sloppy behavior and misalignment that can cost a company dearly.1

OK. Clear enough. A lack of communication is damaging to a company, perhaps fatally so. Left in the dark, employees can only speculate as to what is happening, and, in my experience, people never assume the best. Quite the contrary.

But what about “bad communication”? Is bad communication better than no communication at all? It seems unlikely. In fact, I think it is reasonable to conclude that bad communication may create just as many problems as no communication—if not more—and may actually be worse than no communication at all, which is incredibly difficult to imagine.

Credibility Killers

A recent MarketingProfs article2 entitled “CEO Communications: Five Phrases That Signal ‘BS’” describes several commonly used phrases that can damage a CEO’s credibility because they are cliched, lack sincerity, or are intentionally vague:

  • “This deal is a win-win.”
  • “Thinking/working/planning outside the box.”
  • “We’re not here to talk about the past.”
  • “We are an innovative company.”
  • “Executive X is stepping down to spend more time with his family.”2

None of these seem all that damaging at first blush, but in the right context each sounds trite or even condescending. For example, “We’re not here to talk about the past” is typically code for “We’re not here to discuss the current issue because we might have to dwell on a mistake I made.” And is there any throw-away phrase more cliched and ridiculously vague as the worn out prescription to “think outside the box?”

An interesting article, and it caused me to think about some of the more common communication mistakes that managers make; mistakes that consistently damage their credibility and leave their employees in the dark:

Credibility-Killer No. 1: CONDESCENSION

Credibility-killer #1 is the condescending attempt to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Think Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. The great Oz has spoken.” Does anything really irritate you more than to know there is a problem and have the leader suggest there really isn’t a problem? Or to have a leader figuratively pat you on the head and send you on your way as if you are simply not capable of understanding? Why not just call me stupid and get it over with?

Remedy: Admit the issue. Be transparent. Treat your employees like adults.

Credibility-Killer No. 2: TRITE & FUZZY DIRECTIVES

Credibility-killer #2 is meaningless declarations that you (mistakenly) believe will motivate your employees to greater performance. Think “Win one for the Gipper.” You might want to reconsider and be more specific. Hamm explains the problem:

“Leaders frequently espouse dozens of cliché-infused declarations such as ‘Let’s focus on the key priorities this quarter,’ ‘Customers come first,’ or ‘We need a full-court press in engineering this month.’ Over and over again, they present grand, overarching—yet fuzzy—notions of where they think the company is going.”

“Fuzzy” proclamations, by definition, lack clarity. As such, they sound meaningless and fail to create a clear set of steps to achieve an objective.

Remedy: Detailed analysis. Clear expectations. Defined steps.

Credibility-Killer No. 3: IGNORING YOUR OWN MISTAKES

Creating excuses for your own mistakes is Credibility-killer #3. I once had the opportunity to work at a company where the boss was always quick to publicly criticize others, but never once admitted his own miscalculations. Ever. Instead, there was always a good reason why the failures were acceptable. I suspect there are few areas of “bad communication” that outrank this one. If you’re looking to destroy a company quickly, this should be somewhere near the top of your list of tactics.

Remedy: Own your decisions. Admit mistakes. Model the behavior you want in your people.

Lessons Learned

The ultimate answer to our question (Which is worse?) is “yes.” Providing your staff with no communication is destructive. However, bad communication is also destructive. And both are common. Which leads to an even bigger discussion: Why do companies fail to invest in training that will improve leadership communication?

Maybe they are just too busy with that full-court press in engineering.

Kelley Riggs bio Kelly Riggs is an author, speaker, and business performance coach for executives and companies throughout the United States, and is a speaker and dynamic trainer in the fields of leadership, sales development, and strategic planning. He is serial entrepreneur and former two-time national Salesperson-of-the-Year with over two decades of sales management and sales training experience. Rigg’s first book, 1-on-1 Management™: What Every Great Manager Knows That You Don’t, was released in 2008. His second book, Quit Whining and Start SELLING: A Step-by-Step Guide to a Hall of Fame Career in Sales was released this May. CORRESPONDENCE to HR or Kelly Riggs at: [email protected]



1. Hamm J. The five messages leaders must manage. Harvard Business Review. Available at:

2. MarketingProfs. CEO communications: five phrases that signal ‘BS.’ Available at: