When is Spinning the Message a Good Thing?

Harvard Business Review

May 27, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

This week’s question for Ask the Coach:

In our company we value integrity, yet leaders – especially in marketing – are taught to “spin” to make products and services sound good to clients. When is “spinning” a message a good thing? When it is wrong?

Every company that sells products or services “spins” these in a positive way to clients. This is not immoral, illegal, or unethical. It is just good business.

I believe that spinning is perfectly appropriate when:

– The benefits described by the sender of the message are real – and truly add value to the receiver of the message. For the long-term viability of the organization, business transactions need to be “win-win.”

– The spinning is done to help the larger good – not just promote the person doing it.

– The sender describing the benefits truly believes that the overall impact to the receiver of the message is positive. For example, great leaders effectively promote their organizations. They may highlight the positives of their companies more than the negatives, but they believe (on balance) that their organizations add value to stakeholders – whether they are employees, stockholders or customers.

– Optimism is balanced with realism. Optimism is a characteristic that is highly correlated with success in any field. Yet optimists often over-commit. In the short-term, positive projections for the future may motivate people to buy products, services or stocks. In the long-term, leaders have to consistently deliver on promises – or they will be seen as being to unreliable to justify an investment.

Spinning becomes dysfunctional when:

– The sender of the message knowingly lies to the receiver. I always teach that leaders who knowingly commit ethics violations should never be coached – they should be fired. Even one integrity violation can ruin an otherwise wonderful organization.

– The spinning is designed to enhance the personal benefit of the sender – at the expense of the receiver. One variation on this theme is the agency problem that recently occurred with sales people who were promoting very shaky mortgages just to collect a commission. This dysfunctional spinning led to countless disasters for buyers – who lost their homes and ruined their credit ratings. This spinning also hurt the financial institutions – which lost billions of dollars.

– The company will not deliver the benefits that are being sold to the receiver of the message.

As usual, this was a great question!

Readers – Please send in any of your ideas on when spinning is a positive – and when it is dysfunctional. If you can give any examples, they will be welcome.

Have a question you’d like to me to address? You can submit it by either adding a comment to this post or by e-mailing it to askthecoach@hbsp.harvard.edu