One of the best books I’ve read about communication and reading the room, Leadership Is Language by L. David Marquet. The story is about a cargo ship that faces the storm and, through a series of discussions and decisions, sinks, killing the entire staff. The story is tragic, and it definitely gives me a shudder every time I re-read some chapters of the book, partially because while I talk stuff about tech and business, all with serious face, my decisions are much, they are much more recoverable, and the downside is much, much less harsh. Which makes the book even more impactful.
The primary focal point in the first part of the book (about one-third) is the language that the captain and the staff use when they talk to each other. The captain is a massive authority figure on the vessel, and the influence of this formal power is so strong, people address him indirectly and avoid pointing out his one-sided thinking. The captain doesn’t really want that, but somehow doesn’t “wake up” either, falling further into the escalation of commitment, gradually losing every chance to prevent the disaster.
The captain’s language is the language of coercion. This is a blunt, direct word that doesn’t require mental energy to unpack, and hearing it can hurt, and so people prefer avoiding it to not sound too polarized. It usually is replaced with the word “inspired”, because it feels good, even though it might so happen that the expected outcome is the same and the way the assignment is given (or, “opportunity created”) are similar. The author explains that the captain needed to get people who were not part of making the decision to comply with the decision (...) he just needed them to go along.
As the ship faces the storm head on, the captain says things like ”We’re going into the storm. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”, which, out of context, probably sounds like a regular thing for a captain to say, but the problem is, that wasn’t a usual storm, and everyone knew that. The captain puts on a mask and sounds brave in an attempt to infect others with his positive attitude. He’s the leader, in the end, and his mood is supposed to make a profound impact on the staff.
Let’s pause there a bit. I have to say, I had done it similar way, too. Sure, I’m a manager in tech, I work with software engineers, is the downside that bad? We’re in enterprise SaaS space, we ain’t coding firmware for Boeing. But then, from prior years as a software engineer myself, I recall situations when my manager would enter the room with a smile on their face and say something encouraging, while I was absolutely convinced that we’re all going to hell. Gotta say, it didn’t quite infect me with courage and positive thinking. Rather, I thought that the boss was nuts and should take a chill pill or something. Why, having this experience, did I do the same thing to other people that I got done to me and didn’t like it? Honestly, no idea. Like a shortcut, this decision-making is driven by the desire to conserve the mental energy: instead of going over how bad things might be and spending lots of time rethinking the plan, just keep the plan as is and yolo towards the goal.
So the effect of the captain’s words on the staff goes the opposite way. People become confused, which leads them to take neutral point of view and use vague language. Starting from there, the ambiguity reinforces itself. People are literally unable to make a choice, intuitively leaving it to the captain.
The story doesn’t go much further and ends with the ship irreversibly facing the storm and sinking shortly after. For the other two-thirds of the book, the author talk about different mistakes leaders make, and how it all, in fact, reflects through the language they use.
I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in languages or communication, but there’s one thing that hits real hard. You have probably been in a similar situation, although it might have looked differently, with different vocabulary being used and such. So here’s the story:
I attended a meeting where people were asked to vote up or down on whether they supported a proposed course of action. When the vote was over, each of the down voters (there were only a couple) was asked, “What would make you turn your down into a yes?”
Sounds familiar? When I was reading the book, it took me a few minutes to unpack this paragraph. Here’s the second part of it:
This did not have the intended result because it put them on the spot, placing them in the position of blockers, with the implication that everyone else was expected to get on board. The message was “We are going this way, how can we overcome your objections?” not an honest “Is this the direction we should go?”
If you’re a manager or a leader in any capacity, you probably ask a lot of questions every day. Unless you have nerves of steel and have no expectations whatsoever, only some of these questions are genuinely open-ended, while others are actually leading towards a particular outcome. And this is something that the author pulls the reader’s attention to: sure, such questions exist, but they don’t really make things easier. You can’t take answer to this kind of question at high level of confidence. Knowing what you know now, you should pretty much anticipate that people get more confused and less decisive. Exactly the opposite of what you believe happened.
By the way, this post is secretly titled “How to screw up your team”, and you just got through the reading material for the first section. Congratulations!
There’s a lot more information in the book, some of it directly actionable; I’d recommend looking for the seven sins of questioning or the chain of command vs. information flow. If you’re an aspiring master of communication or an ever-wondering people leader, this book is going to give you a unique perspective on things from the point of view of the most basic human communication tool, language.