“Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups.”

In looking at communication – and my subfield of internal communication in particular – remarkably little attention is paid to the extent communication decisions are based on assumptions.

In internal communications, these assumptions tend to be based either on what the author (aka the “boss” or the “company”) believes the role of the audience to be, or the way the author would like the audience’s role to be in that instance. 

One Managing Director I worked with 20 years ago and I was crafting some messages back in the day, was adamant. “They’re all shareholders. I’ll talk to them like they’re shareholders. They’ll get it.”

The subject was cost containment.  In a company that was going through a fairly painful acquisition. Was an assumption in the air?

Fast forward to 2021

I’m talking to a business executive in Iceland, where my family and I moved the previous summer. In our conversation, the executive said “In a country of 350,000 there are no specialists.  Everyone wears a number of hats.”

I put two and two together.  People have different work hats – different jobs they do as part of their employment. But could people also wear different communication hats – different roles that guide their listening, behavior and conversations about specific subjects? This got me thinking.

Almost immediately thereafter, I noticed a post from Gihan Hyde – a well-regarded communication professional I’d not actually met – talking about how people in startups “wear lots of hats.”  I approached her to join forces on this and she quickly accepted.

The Communication Hats

The idea of “shareholder” as one of a number of “hats” that could be worn by an employee (or a consumer) was the key to unpacking a set of hats that cover a (fairly) full set of interactions. 

Together, Gihan and I identified:

Citizen – someone concerned about the wellbeing of their community and their own say in influencing that

Consumer – someone who has a “buy this or go somewhere else” choice when presented with a product or an option.

Investor (Shareholder) – someone expected to act in their financial best interest

Subordinate – someone expected to do what he/she is told to do.

Tribe member – someone who is looking out for one of the communities he/she  chooses to belong to

Gihan explores the individual hats in her excellent piece here.

The Mother of Inappropriate Communication

In my experience, most of the bad, ineffective or inappropriate communication I’ve seen results from an assumption that someone wearing one hat was in fact wearing another. 

For example, when you’re worried about your job or your working conditions (co-worker), you don’t really care about something that might add a couple of dollars to the price of your 20 shares (investor).

When you care about the environment and animal welfare (citizen), you really don’t care that much that the price of factory-farmed chicken is 15% off (consumer).

When being part of a community, a team, or a band of brand loyalists (tribe member) forms a part of your identity, you aren’t going to change teams over a competitor’s new feature or a new benefit (consumer).

How To Make The Communication Hats Work For You

To make the best use of the communication hats concept, here are a few things to recognize:

  • Hats are worn unconsciously

No one says “I’m going to switch from ‘subordinate’ to ‘citizen’ now.”

  • Addressing your hat takes guesswork – or, better, listening

Communication hats don’t exist in the physical sense. Some conversations, or some following of conversations on related subjects (on public or internal channels) will point you towards the right hat to some extent. Organizational Network Analysis can help you identify your internal tribes.

  • Communication hats can help you clean up after the fact

If a message or initiative lands badly, finding the mismatch between the intended hat and the actual hat can go a long way towards follow-up that lands better

  • Knowing your communication hats can help you ask better questions

When building communication initiatives, looking at them from each of the “hat” perspectives opens up insights and offers heightened possibilities for targeting them to different segments – even when it’s impossible to send different messages to different people.

It’s not our intention for the communication hats we’ve mentioned here to be a definitive or final set. In fact, we are open to suggestions about others that may be common enough to merit being added to the model.

Our intention is that it’s risky to communicate with an audience while making assumptions about their interests and motives. By thinking about communication hats, you can check your assumptions, ask the right questions, and make the right kind of connection.

Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms, a boutique global communication consultancy focused on internal and social communication. He has worked with major organizations like Shell, Maersk, Cargill, Barclays and Avery Dennison. Mike holds an MBA from London Business School and is the former Chair of the International Association of Business Communicators in Europe – Middle East – North Africa.