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The True Costs of Implying in Leadership Communication (& How to address them)

By Anthony Taylor - May 26, 2023

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In life, effective communication is crucial, and the same holds true within your workplace. The curse and cost of assumed communication are very real. Every time we fail to clearly express our intentions, the outcomes we desire become increasingly elusive.

As leaders and teams, it's easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions and inferring meaning from our colleagues' words and actions. In the short term, it may seem inconsequential, but in the long run, these assumptions can deal hefty blows to your finances and organizational culture.

Consider when discussing strategic goals and vision, how often we rely on broad terms like growth, innovation, or improved customer service. While these aspirations may appear clear, they lack explicit definitions, leading to ambiguity.

For instance:

  • Does growth mean a million dollars or ten million dollars?
  • Does innovation involve disruptive breakthroughs or incremental improvements?
  • Are we proactively serving customers or merely reacting to their dissatisfaction?

Consider a recent conversation i had with a CEO who mentioned that their current margin level was unsatisfactory. When questioned further, it became evident that he had only hinted at the issue to the rest of his team, without explicitly communicating what the current state of things were, and how they needed to pivot. This instance highlights the prevalence of inference, expectation, and assumption within teams.

Unfortunately, these assumptions can subtly steer the organization off course and create costly misalignments.

The financial costs of Implying in leadership communication:

The consequences of this implied communication breakdown were severe. The organization suffered a financial loss that could have been avoided with clear instructions and expectations. These losses included:

  1. Time Lost: Countless hours were spent by the rest of his team on pursuing the wrong projects and strategies. This misdirection significantly hindered progress and delayed the achievement of their key OKRs.
  2. Sunk Costs: Alongside the misallocated time, substantial resources were wasted on projects that were ultimately deemed irrelevant or misguided. These sunk costs further burdened the company's financial health.



Over my 13 years as a strategic planning facilitator, one observation has consistently stood out: the pervasive nature of implied communication issues. If these challenges remain unaddressed, the culture of "implying" can permeate from top-level leaders to the frontline, creating an environment where fostering accountability becomes difficult and strategic plans are rarely executed. So, how does implied communication manifest within our organizations?


Assumptions, Suggestions, and Inferences: Avoiding Misalignment and Failed Strategy Execution

As leaders, we bear the responsibility of effective communication. While it's important to avoid being dictatorial, striking a balance between aligning your team with your organization's vision and strategic goals is crucial. However, the vision and strategic objectives will be compromised without a shared language and defined outcomes within your organization. Consider the "telephone game," where information easily gets misconstrued. Now imagine the same situation with strategic plans and projects conveyed through assumptions, suggestions, or inferences. This can lead to misalignment and ultimately hinder the execution of your strategy.

The Curse of Knowledge as a Leader


As leaders, we often fall victim to the "curse of knowledge." Due to our deep understanding of various aspects of the business, we assume that everyone else possesses the same level of knowledge and awareness.
This assumption can hinder effective communication and decision-making within our organization.

Your organization is filled with diverse individuals in different stages of the thinking process, each with unique perspectives and views of the organization. Without providing the necessary information, our conversations become fragmented, leading to a loss of intended words and intent. It becomes challenging to get full buy-in from our team members.

Additionally, differing priorities and task preferences cause misalignment and inefficiencies. Recognize that not everyone has equal access to information or prioritizes tasks similarly. As a leader, bridging these gaps is crucial for effective communication and successful outcomes.

The Lens Of Complexity

In the face of organizational losses or failure to meet strategic targets, it is easy to gravitate toward complex problems and solutions. However, the truth is that the underlying cause of these failures often lies simply in "implied" communication. Rather than recognizing the role of communication, organizations tend to attribute issues to broader strategic and operational deficiencies.

Occam's Razor principle reminds us to seek the simplest and most accurate explanations when faced with competing possibilities. It encourages us to avoid unnecessary complexity and embrace straightforward explanations that effectively address the problem. However, it's crucial to acknowledge that many organizational problems stem from underlying systems and behaviors. These issues can often be traced back to assumptions—our unspoken beliefs and expectations.

Accepting this concept can be challenging, especially when we rely mostly on spreadsheets and data for solutions. Shifting our mindset is necessary to acknowledge that effective communication, clear expectations, and shared understanding are vital components for achieving organizational success.

How can we steer clear of implying things in our leadership communication?

During insightful conversations with three guests on the Strategy and Leadership podcast, we explored common instances where leaders unintentionally imply messages. We also discussed practical strategies to enhance leadership communication.

1. Erin Marcus - CEO of Conquer Your Business

Why is this important?

Implying things often stem from workplace culture, and it can have detrimental effects. One common reason behind implication is the fear of appearing incompetent. Managers may feel uncomfortable seeking clarity or calling out issues, fearing they might be perceived as micromanaging. Consequently, critical conversations are avoided, leading to misaligned outcomes, potential conflicts, and a high employee turnover rate.

How to address this?

Erin advises embracing uncomfortable conversations and initiating them early. Avoid waiting until situations reach a critical point, as reactionary discussions tend to be less productive. By addressing concerns and seeking clarity proactively,  can prevent misunderstandings, promote alignment, and mitigate the costly consequences of implications.

"In leadership, avoiding a difficult conversation does not make it not happens, It just means when it happens it'll be at the most inopportune time and you'll have a lack of options".

- Erin Marcus

Bonus tip from Erin:

As a leader, it's essential to understand that it all starts with you. When you communicate, consider the impact of your actions on others. Put yourself in their shoes and reflect on what it feels like to receive vague assumptions and lack clear directions. By making small changes in your communication approach, you can have a major positive impact on yourself and those around you.



Listen to the full conversation with Erin here


2. Nick Donofrio - 44–year IBM veteran who led IBM’s technology and innovation strategies from 1997 -2008.

Why i'm sharing this?

In the midst of high-stress situations, communication can be greatly influenced. Turbulent markets breed uncertainty, leading to fears of job loss and the need for quick adjustments. It's during these times that projects may be postponed for more pressing matters, and urgent fires need to be extinguished.

Unfortunately, I often witness significant setbacks in communication progress during such challenging periods. The added stress makes it harder to find the time for active listening and strategic communication, resulting in assumptions becoming commonplace.

How To Communicate During a Crisis:


Watch the full episode with Nick here



3. Oscar Trimboli - Author, host of the Apple award-winning podcast Deep Listening (Ex Microsoft Director)

Why I'm sharing this:

Effective communication is essential for high-level leaders in large organizations. One crucial aspect that often goes unnoticed is the role of assumptions in hindering communication. In most work meetings, individuals are unaware that they are making assumptions, which can lead to misunderstandings and missed opportunities.

What to do?

Learn how to spot assumptions from your colleague's and coworkers.

"Good leaders listen to what's said, but great leaders listen to what's not said." When we hear words like always, never, absolutely, and precisely, it's important to pause and evaluate the underlying assumptions being made."

- Oscar Trimboli

Here are some key lessons from our conversation with Oscar:

  1. Listen for assumptions: Pay attention to what is not explicitly stated in the conversation. Often, assumptions are hidden beneath the surface and can significantly impact understanding.

  2. Understand the neuroscience of listening: Gain insights into how our brains process information and how to actively engage in deep listening to fully comprehend what is being communicated.

  3. Adopt effective note-taking practices: Discover practical techniques to capture essential points during important meetings, allowing for better retention and follow-up.

  4. Foster a healthy listening culture: Cultivate an environment where active listening is valued and encouraged. Promote open dialogue, respect diverse perspectives, and create space for everyone to be heard.

Listen to his full episode: 



Costly lessons can be learned from situations where implied leadership communication leads to significant financial losses. High-level leaders in large organizations must recognize the importance of explicit communication and clear instructions. To avoid such costly mistakes, consider the following key takeaways:

  1. Avoid Assumptions: Never assume that others will understand your expectations. Clearly articulate instructions and ensure mutual understanding.

  2. Provide Clarity: Communicate changes, goals, and strategies in a detailed and transparent manner. Ambiguity increases the risk of misalignment and costly errors.

  3. Foster Open Dialogue: Encourage open communication channels at all levels. Address questions and concerns proactively to minimize misunderstandings.

  4. Create a Common Organizational Language: Promote clarity and understanding by establishing a common team language. Shared goals, definitions, and expectations reduce misinterpretations and assumptions.

  5. Regularly Review Processes: Conduct periodic reviews of communication practices to identify areas for improvement.

  6. Enhance Communication Channels: Establish clear lines of communication to consistently convey instructions and expectations.

  7. Encourage Feedback: Value the insights and suggestions of team members. Encourage them to provide feedback, ask questions, and seek clarification.

  8. Utilize Effective Communication Tools: Utilize tools that facilitate efficient and effective communication within the organization.

By implementing these strategies, high-level leaders can prevent costly communication breakdowns and ensure that the organization operates cohesively towards its goals. Remember, clear and explicit communication is key to avoiding millions of dollars in potential losses. 

Remember, effective communication is a shared responsibility. Let us commit to fostering a culture of open and transparent communication, where the dangers of implied communication are mitigated, and success becomes the norm.

Some Other articles to explore about how improve your leadership communication:

Strategic Planning Process (What is it?)

A Strategic Approach to Better Communication Systems and Interdependencies

How to Create Team Alignment and Why it's Critical in 2023


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