Clarity of Communication – J. Edgar Hoover and the “Margin of Error!”

I recently heard a fantastic anecdote about “clarity of communication” – or rather the complete lack of it – pertaining to J. Edgar Hoover, the first & Founding Director of the F.B.I (1935-72)

Hugely autocratic in style as a leader, J. Edgar Hoover was “a complicated man” to say the very least.

He was by all accounts a terrifying boss. Staff were either terrified or in awe of him. As a result they were desperate to keep on the right side of him and they therefore questioned or challenged him at their peril.

Watch the Borders!

(One of the costs – as we’ll often point out in our Interpersonal Skills sessions – of having an overly autocratic, aggressive or bullying a style as a leader or manager – is that you won’t always ‘take people with you’ when you lead/manage them).

Hoover was also a great stickler for detail. He was obsessive – and not just about the ‘amount of dust on the F.B.I carpets’ as you might expect with a surname like his (!) – but about his absolute insistence, that any documents or reports that were ever sent to him for perusal or feedback, must always have plenty of space down each of the two margins – so that he could add his comments and presumably ‘bark his instructions’ in written form, as he went about his day (and often, let us not forget, he went about his day in a dress – I told you he was “complicated”!)

Anyway, on one particularly fateful day – as the anecdote would have it – a new intern – happily and haplessly oblivious until this particular point in time as to the quirks of his new boss – made the silly mistake (a mistake to put a chill down your spine!) of submitting a report to the great man himself – and whoopsy! – omitting to leave enough – or indeed any space at all – in the margins of his first (and presumably last) report to his new boss.

Hoover apparently, point blank refused to even read the document. Instead he merely fired it back – incensed – from whence it came, with a great big FAT HEADER written across the top of the document in BOLD & RED accompanied – helpfully – by two great big RED ARROWS for extra clarity, both of which shot-off down the margins of each side of the document respectively, accompanied by the clear Header Instructions, as mentioned above, saying: “WATCH THE BORDERS…”

There! Couldn’t be clearer! Or so it seemed…

The very next day 750 F.B.I Agents were sent to “Watch the Borders of Mexico” – as the paragraph to which both arrows were pointing, was a paragraph pertaining to Mexico!


J. Edgar Hoover – otherwise known as “Captain Clarity!”

So, wind forward 75 years on to today – and what can we learn from all of this?

What – in terms of our communication skills and our “vain attempts at clarity” today – has changed?

Well, for one thing, we now find ourselves in the new “Age of Confusion” itself: Yes – The Golden Age of E-mail!

“Why bother to communicate at all when you can just bang off an e-mail?!”

How many of us – just like the great man Dyson himself (!), have similarly assumed that we are operating from a position of being nothing short of “Captain Clarity” personified: “Yes, I couldn’t be clearer if I tried!” Only to find that your ‘absolutely crystal clear communication’ that you took the time to express just moments ago, in the e-mail that you’ve just banged off – has just exploded in utter confusion and relationship damage at the other end?!

We’ve all been there – and who has to Hoover up the mess?!

(In short – you do: We must all take responsibility for the clarity or otherwise of our communication).

Time for one of our Working Voices Business Writing courses perhaps – or better still – one on Communication Skills.

Or why not avoid all possible confusion altogether, by remembering to talk and really listen to each other instead?

Working Voices. We’re very good at ‘clarity of communication’ us…

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