Everything communicates — everything you say and do and don’t say and don’t do. But not everything communicates the same things to everyone the same way. We each have our own filters. This is why it’s so important to take into account your audience’s historical and cultural context when trying to communicate with them and why clarifying is so important. You cannot manage your message in a vacuum. You must manage it for your audience and their filters.

At a colleague’s request, I participated in a focus group on United Way giving in Cincinnati. The organizers wanted to understand our charitable donation choices. At one point the moderator asked us how we felt about the way the United Way allocated funds it raised.

I told the moderator “It’s a black box. I have no idea how they make their decisions.”

After the focus group was over my colleague invited me to listen in on a debrief by the organizers who had been sitting behind the glass. When they got to the question on fund allocation one of the organizers said, “They think it’s a black box and don’t want to know more because they have confidence in how we manage it.”


That wasn’t what I was thinking at all. I was thinking I had no confidence in how they managed fund allocations because of the complete lack of transparency into their process. But the organizer heard what he wanted to hear.

To be fair, this doesn’t always happen. Ryan Kellogg interviewed me for his series on “Win the War for Talent.” He did a remarkably good job capturing my main points in his “Importance of Employee Engagement Through a Positive Working Environment” summary.

The difference is the nature of the filters.

The United Way organizer’s real agenda was to confirm and justify things they were already doing. Perhaps someone had suggested he talk to donors just to check their plans before going forward. Either way, he was listening for what he wanted to hear. Things that matched his mental model registered. Things that did not were rejected or modified to fit.

Kellogg’s agenda was to learn and present new ideas for others. He took the time to clarify what he was hearing and worked hard not to let his own biases filter the message.

Your Audience’s Filters

The lesson is that you cannot manage your message in a vacuum. You must take into account your audience’s filters and manage your message differently for different audiences.

Managing Audience Filters When Onboarding Into A New Organization

This is especially difficult when joining a new organization. You don’t know the language. You don’t know the context. You don’t know how people are receiving what you’re saying.

For example if someone tells you that “Jack does good work.” That could mean:

• Jack is one of our best. His work is always good.

• Jack is an average performer. His work is good, but not excellent.

• Jack does not meet our standards. He does good work, but doesn’t produce results.

You don’t know what they mean and they don’t know what you mean.

But you have an advantage. You know you’re new. You know it’s a new language. You know you have to change your filter. They don’t know that. They think you’re speaking their language from the moment you show up.

This is why you have to take charge of your own onboarding and your own positioning. This is why the first two critical steps of executive onboarding are getting a head start and managing your message.

Get A Head Start

Use the time between accepting and starting a job to craft your plan, prepare and start building relationships. Those first people you meet can be huge allies in helping you adjust your filters.

Manage Your Message

Everything communicates. Think through how you want to be perceived. Then figure out your audiences’ filters and manage what you say and do and don’t say and do with those in mind.