When you hear the phrase, “We need to get this done,” what is your reaction?

For some, it’s a call to jump into the situation and solve the problem firsthand. For others, it’s a directive to organize the right people and resources to accomplish a goal. The first is a doer/contributor reaction, while managers and leaders most often perceive the latter.

What you hear depends on what you’re tuned into. It’s AM radio vs. FM radio.

“Doer” communication happens on the AM band. It’s a workhorse, travels for miles, and does its job. It’s not overly sophisticated, and a lot gets lost between transmission and reception. AM communication is perfect to deliver a can’t-miss message to a broad group of people.

FM communication requires a different antenna. It’s richer (stereo sound!), more complex, and travels shorter distances. Leaders and managers communicate at this band with bigger-picture, strategic messages to the right audience at the right time.

A quick example – a great salesperson, we’ll call Kenneth, got promoted to a sales manager a year ago. His leaders have been telling him consistently to grow sales, saying that he should only be spending about 20% on a select few accounts. What they mean is that he needs to transfer his unique market knowledge and manage his team so that the overall organization can get more revenue in the door. What Ken hears is that the company needs more sales, so he starts hustling more, having his best year ever while complaining to his bosses that the company hasn’t hired skilled enough salespeople to take the reins. Ken is confused.

FM message – Lead and manage your team to grow the business and reserve your sales time for select clients.

AM translation – Get more revenue through any means necessary and, often, despite the other salespeople.

For high-potential contributors, getting stuck at the AM band can get in the way of their success. They mishear messages from their managers, leaders, and mentors, and they end up defaulting to the get-it-done skills that have previously set them apart. Their primary challenge – and opportunity – is to learn how to be in tune with FM-style messages instead of hearing everything through their AM filter.

Existing managers and leaders aren’t off the hook, however. Their tendency to assume that their FM message translates means they get frustrated when their charges don’t hear the nuance. They don’t realize that the nuance sometimes gets lost in transmission.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Sometimes, we just need to tune into a different frequency.