Hello SOTGC community,
Would you like a rainbow with that?
Every year, my son likes cake made from a 16 inch chocolate chip cookie for his birthday instead of a regular birthday cake. Because he turned 17 this year, I order what I thought would be an understated cookie cake with alternating white and multi-colored icing dots around the edge of the cookie, and “Happy Birthday Sean” in big icing letters on the cookie surrounded by scattered multi-color squiggles of icing. The store employee and I both looked at the prototype in the display window. He verified I didn’t want any art, like balloons, on the cookie. I politely told him no art. The cookie can look just like the prototype. He jotted down the notes on the order form, and we agreed on the pickup time for the order. I purchased a specialty cookie for my son, and walked away with my thoughts focused on how to make this last birthday at home before he leaves for college memorable.
The first clue something might be slightly awry occurred when my husband and I arrived to pick up the cookie cake. With my frequent cookie cake loyalty card out, ready to redeem a free cake, I told the employee I was there to pick up an order. The employee, when handing me the box, said, “It looks like it was prepaid. Have a great day.” I didn’t recall paying for the cake, and didn’t think my mother-in-law called in to pay for it. We were running behind schedule, so I took the box and made a note to look into it later. Then, when we reached the car, my husband opened the box, he looked at me quizzically and asked, “Did you ask for this on purpose?” He saw the concern on my face and tilted the box so I could see the rainbow and cloud art and the smaller than expected icing text.
Fortunately, the 17 year old teenage boy took it in stride and found the story amusing. I started to “wonder how did this happen?”
As benign of a misunderstand as this was, it is a good example of what happens when people communicate. When people communicate, they work from a shared pool of information, each person climbs up a ladder of inference influenced by the biases and experiences she brings to the table, and then she develops a conclusion. The original employee and I worked from the same pool of information. We both looked at the prototype as we discussed the design for the cake. Yet, I end up with a cake that was close, but still off the mark. One look at the order slip explained both the free cake and the rainbow art.
While the first employee and I shared the same pool of information, the employees who decorated the cake and delivered the cake received a subset of the information and ran up different ladders of inference. Where the first employee and I agreed on the concept of multi- colored confetti, the decorator interpreted the information to mean, “add a big rainbow to the cake.” Where the first employee noted I didn’t pay, the second employee interpreted it as “no charge.”
How often does this happen to us in our families, our jobs, and our career development? Think of the times when you felt you communicated clearly and then were surprised by the outcomes. We can’t control the ladder of influence of the person at the other end of the conversation which may have contributed to the unexpected outcomes. We can try to be as clear and exact as we can be in our communications. We can be clear in our aspirations and wants. We can try to eliminate distracting or unnecessary bits of information when we communicate with others. We can also try to leave information in presentations or notes for reference at a later time or to add clarity. Sometimes though, we may need to make the most of the rainbows that come our way and hope they make life memorable.