There is No Such Thing as “Low-Stakes Communication”

It’s not uncommon to hear the term high-stakes communication used when companies need help sharing important news or insights. But what we almost never hear is leaders concerned with what we might call routine or low-stakes communication, at least not until it’s too late.

In reality, there is no such thing as low-stakes communication. But by way of recent actions, one might think otherwise. 

Take for example John Gruden who was forced to resign as NFL head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders last month. The reason? Emails from 2011 that surfaced with insensitive comments from Gruden directed at the executive director of the National Football League Players Association. Additional emails with distasteful commentary toward women and the LGBTQ community also emerged.

Then there was Ken Jennings, the most successful contestant to appear on the game show Jeopardy! who was a frontrunner to replace Alex Trebek as its host. That is until insensitive tweets from 2014 resurfaced. Even U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe found herself playing defense after 10-year-old tweets cut against the grain of her inclusive and activist persona. 

Add in recent and ill-advised commentaries from the CEO of Wells Fargo, COO of CPS Energy, and an editor at Teen Vogue, and what we have is a recurring lack of awareness that everything you say, send or tweet is fair game for public scrutiny. And, unlike legal statutes of limitation, questionable comments enjoy an indefinite shelf life in the court of public opinion. 

While all of these comments are regrettable, they are preventable. 

It starts with intentional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives within organizations and employees applying those learnings to personal, everyday interactions — not just the outward and visible comments intended for public audiences. 

But perhaps the best advice is also the easiest to perform: before speaking, tweeting, emailing or posting — pause. 

By pausing, we can revisit any communication before it is public and ask:

  • Is this emotionally triggering (to me or to others)? Am I communicating with respect for differing points of view and with how I want to be viewed? 
  • Am I communicating too comfortably with people whom I have great comfort and familiarity? Would I say the same things in the same way to any or all people?

We all have opinions, and we all enjoy the benefit of free speech in America. But that freedom doesn’t inoculate us from consequences that might come. By now, we know we can’t take back what’s been said, and that deleting inappropriate comments isn’t an effective strategy either. 

Self-aware leaders know that every personal encounter, public engagement, and published dialogue plays a role in growing and maintaining the reputational capital that affords them and their organizations to flourish.

Conversely, they also know that hot takes, so-called “joking” lines, and perceived routine communications are the snares that trip up people and the companies they represent. And when it happens, the repercussions can be devastating. 

That alone is worth pausing and thinking about.