We communicate on levels. That should, on the face of it, be obvious. But it’s also one of the most challenging concepts to understand, learn and master in how we connect as human beings.
Last week’s article explored the notion that “things aren’t always as they seem.” That was an exploration of our biases, and how they get in the way; that we don’t necessarily trigger our analytical brain when the stakes are high and we need to bring our full attention to a problem. But that still dealt with the notion that there was a definable problem, and that the problem could be objectively understood.
This is where it gets complicated. As much as many of us would like to believe that the world is rational and that objective reality exists, life doesn’t actually work that way. Meaning happens on levels. Intention happens on levels. Deception and misdirection happen on levels. Agreement, disagreement and misunderstanding in particular happen on levels. This is where people, understanding and interaction get messy and difficult.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s take a simple example, and one that we’ve used before: reporting the status of a project. Theoretically, there is nothing more rational in the world. We have a project plan that identifies what we hope to do; our status report is supposed to be our objective assessment of where we actually are, and what that means.
The challenge with this is that there are many different viewpoints and expectations on what a ‘good’ status report represents. For some project managers (and sponsors) this might indeed be one that is an objective, factual and accurate reflection of project status. This is one that identifies what is done, is honest about what remains to be completed and forthrightly articulates the problems being experienced and the risks that might be encountered.
Other interpretations of what constitutes a good status report exist, however. This can include, “one that doesn’t get me in trouble.” Or, “one in which I am not singled out at the executive table.” Or, “one that does not identify any problems.” This is not to say, of course, that problems don’t exist. What is important is that the status report doesn’t explicitly speak to the problems. This is particularly true in a culture where status reports are always green, and a status of yellow and red is considered unacceptable. Sponsors don’t want to hear about problems, and so they simply will them away.
The challenge in all of this is determining how to build a status report that delivers on the objective of misrepresenting what is actually happening. The variations in strategy are many: some just outright lie, and pretend that problems don’t exist. I have seen status reports that have honestly represented status in the details, and yet stubbornly continued to have an overall assessment of “green” (largely on the belief—accurate as it so often turns out—that no one was actually paying attention to the details). Project managers have resorted to shifting the goal posts, moving plan dates to match an increasingly out-of-synch project. And others develop a knack for speaking around the truth, or paltering (a lovely term that describes the act of offering statements that—while factually true—are in actuality misleading).
The reason that all of these strategies work to the extent that they do is that meaning operates on levels. At its simplest, there is a gap between what is intended and what is actually stated. If my motivation is to offer a misleading status report, I might offer words and phrasing that allows my audiences to hear what they want (without me objectively lying). This immediately introduces a third level to the exercise, however. There is the objective truth of the status of the project, there is the intention of how status should be communicated and then there are the words that are used to convey the status.
If three levels was as complicated as things got, we would probably be okay. We would likely be at least a bit more functional than we are. The reality, though, is that there are far more layers of communication—and with those, layers of meaning and interpretation—in any given situation. Even in our simple world of a status report, meaning and truth can be manipulated. Once we get into the really complex stuff, all bets are off.
Just to illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s take our simple world of project status just a little further. For the sake of argument, let’s start with the objective truth of project status. From there, to build a status report, we have to interpret that objective truth; we create meaning around what we believe the status to be. From there, we move to the status we need—or want—to report. That leads to the articulation of a plausible story of status that will be accepted by our audience, which in turn leads to what actually gets produced as actual status report. So far, we’re working with about five levels—and even that interpretation is simplistic.
Then we have to look at things from our sponsor’s perspective. Taking the communicated status report as a basis, and generously assuming they read the report, they build an interpretation of what is communicated. That gets filtered through the lens of what they want the status to be, which gets translated into the status they choose to hold as interpreted truth (and which serves as the basis for what they tell others).
Extrapolate from here, and the options are limitless. Different motives offer different expressions, different interpretations and different identifications of meaning. Information is communicated and interpreted differently based on whether we are trying to truly understand or we are just seeking plausible deniability. None of which begins to tap into how meaning is shaped and warped when someone has a contrary agenda they are trying to pursue at our expense.
It would be easy at this point to throw your hands up in despair, and view everything above as indicative of the world being a hopeless cesspool of negative manipulation. While that is arguably true of some small and not-so-small corners of the world, that’s not wholly where I’m trying to go here.
The fact that communication and meaning is constructed in layers is actually a powerful concept. Yes, it can be used for deception and manipulation. Levels of meaning are also the source of agency, and how we are independently able to take creative action. It is active understanding of the levels of meaning at play that allow us to assess and evaluate a range of possible options. This is how we get to political action and opportunities for creative choice.
To explore this, let’s stop talking about project status and start talking about rules. We are all subject to rules, and they manifest themselves in a variety of forms. There are laws. Policies. Procedures. Guidelines. Social conventions. Strongly worded suggestions. Subtly worded encouragements. Nudges and winks and nods. Together, they shape how accepted and acceptable behaviour is circumscribed, and define the framework of how we act.
What is important to recognize about rules, though, is that we all interpret them differently. To prove this out, you need look no further than the nearest highway. All drivers are subject to the same set of laws. There is a speed limit we are expected to follow, lanes we are expected to drive in and behaviours that we are supposed to engage in when passing. This in no way explains, though, why some drivers enter the highway and veer directly to the outside lane, while others firmly and devoutly stay inside unless passing (and some never even dare that). It also doesn’t explain some drivers driving solidly on the speed limit, others driving below and still more treating it as a mere suggestion.
If rules did what they said on the tin, everyone would engage in exactly the same behaviours. Drivers would obediently enter the highway, accelerate gradually but progressively to the speed limit, and stay firmly in the inside lane. That this doesn’t happen means that something else is going on. What is specifically at play are levels of evaluation, assessment and interpretation of the rules. How rules are evaluated correspond directly to what behaviour is actually exhibited, which is in turn the basis for agency and how it gets expressed.
In the context of rules systems, agency can in its simplest form be argued to play out on three levels. First, there is an understanding of the rules as they are actually defined. Second, there is an interpretation of the rules and what they intend. Thirdly, there is a judgement on the part of each individual on whether, how and to what degree they will take action in adhering to the rule. In other words, I may objectively understand the speed limit to be 100 km/h. I may interpret that to suggest that a reasonable speed limit is somewhere within 20% of that number (others will interpret differently, and view that choice as either maniacal or ridiculously conservative). I may then choose to actually drive at a number near, above or below speed that depending upon a variety of factors including weather, mood, lateness and the degree to which I feel lucky.
This is exactly how it plays out in organizations, as well. We have our organizational policies, procedures and guidelines which formally define and prescribe the way activity is supposed to be organized. We have our collective and individual interpretations of those rules, each of which may actually vary by department, group and team. Finally, we have the choice of how we enact, manipulate, bypass or ignore what the processes describe. Given that in any organization, we are one agent among many, this becomes an exponentially varied array of actual behaviours and actions, with untold inconsistencies in what gets done and the results it produces.
What this defines is the complexity—and the range of opportunity—at play in how we collaborate, how we function and how we survive in organizations. Intimations of rational truth and objective reality are overlaid with numerous levels of meaning, motive and interpretation. We don’t operate on one level, but many, as do all of those around us. The same is true for every team, every organization and every community. For all that different levels of meaning is a source of confusion, it is also the basis for agency, creativity and free choice. We get to choose the level of meaning that we interact with. And the one below that. And the one below that. Because in the final telling, it’s levels all the way down.