Staff Communication – Is “Baby On Board” Sign Language Your Problem?

Managers don’t usually use conventional signs to alert employees to what they want. But there is a sign language that managers use instead of speech. It can have very different effects on staff performance than those you intend.

“Baby On Board!”
I don’t know if car drivers display signs where you live. Here in Australia there’s a common sign displayed inside the rear window of many vehicles. It’s diamond shaped, with black type on a yellow background. It says in large capitals, “Baby On Board”.

Who’s Responsible?
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Capital letters reduce readership. But we can forget the fact that more people would read the sign if it were printed in upper and lower case. What’s really interesting is that it’s facing outwards. It’s facing the driver of the car behind the car with the “Baby On Board” sign. Surely the person mainly responsible for the safety of the baby is the driver of the car: not the driver in the following car? Wouldn’t the sign be best placed where the driver of the car carrying the baby could see it easily?

Attraction Or Distraction?
Of course it’s useful for the driver following to know that there’s a baby in the car in front. But the sign itself may be a distraction: perhaps the baby would be safer if the driver of the following car wasn’t distracted by the sign. The distraction could cause unexpected effects.

“Ya Really Orta Wanna”
Robert Mager, one of the most respected instructors and instructional designers of the 20th Century refers to signs like this as “Ya really orta want to”. For instance, “Ya really orta want to drive carefully because my baby’s in this car” changes the focus. Safety of the baby becomes the responsibility of the anonymous third party in a following vehicle: not of the person driving the car carrying the baby. Is that reasonable?

Your Sign Language
The most common sign language that we managers use are memos, emails, text messages and notices of one sort or another. We assume that

They mean the same to the persons we’re addressing as they do to us.
Employees will understand and obey the direction included in the “sign”.
The signs will result in improved employee performance.
Feedback is unnecessary and even unwelcome.
Failure to interpret the “sign” correctly reflects poorly on the reader rather than the writer.
Readers will realize that they “really orta want to”.
A “Baby On Board” Variation

Years ago, I worked as a training Officer in a large refinery. Our HR Manager was always sending out “Notices To All Staff”. They were longwinded, jargon ridden and dictatorial. He was a “really orta want to” sort of guy.

One day I was standing in front of a notice board with a young engineer. We discussed the notices. He said of the HR Manager’s latest missive, “Of course the moment I see his name on a notice I don’t bother to read it. I know I won’t understand.” The HR Manager’s notice in front of us started with a 72 word sentence!

Some Hints To Help

Check the clarity of what you write: can employees understand it easily?
Collaborate more: gain employee inputs before issuing instructions.
Evaluate consequences: how are employees likely to respond to what you’re about to “sign”?
Consider outcomes: will your “sign” achieve the employee performance you’re seeking?
Invite employees’ opinions and advice: they may be smarter than you think.
“But I’m the Boss…”
You are. There’ll be times when you must be very directive such as life threatening emergencies. If the building’s burning down you don’t need a meeting to decide what to do. But real emergencies are rare. Don’t assume that merely because you are the boss, employees will read and understand what you write, let alone do what they’re directed to.

“Baby On Board” drivers have a ready made scapegoat if their baby’s hurt in a crash: a following driver who ignored their sign. “Baby On Board” managers also have a ready made scapegoat: the employee. What’s your sign language really saying?

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