Written by Professor Pierre Casse and Professor Robert Weisz on 1 May 2014 in Features

Pierre Casse and Robert Weisz discuss facing everyday leadership challenges

Malentendu is a French word that means “false or misunderstanding”. The condition arises when, while listening to someone, we conclude that we ‘get the picture’ but actually we are quite wrong in our understanding of the message the other person is trying to convey. Nevertheless we persist, clueless to the fact that we are labouring under a misapprehension.

The situation will often be compounded by the fact that the party with whom we are communicating believes that he has been understood when, in fact, he hasn’t. Both parties think they understand each other and act accordingly. The problem is that both parties
are wrong.

A ‘malentendu’ could be defined as a situation in which at least two people have subjective and opposite interpretations of it and yet both think they see the same thing and agree. This discrepancy in mutual understanding, of which both parties are unaware, leads to a breakdown in communication that can prove both embarrassing and destructive.

People will eventually act on their respective misunderstandings and discover that the basis for their behaviour was incorrect. They will then say so sorry, I thought you meant that you were in agreement with my proposal or I thought we had a common understanding. Worse still, they will get upset when they discover that the other person’s attitudes or behaviour are not in line with what they thought they had agreed upon.

‘Malentendus’ are common occurrences. We hear what we want to hear and do not explore further or check our understanding of what the other party means. This is a major source of problems between individuals and is due primarily to five attitudes that most people have in teams and organisations.

We believe in our own assumptions and forget that we should question them from time to time Our daily life is based on subjective interpretations of various situations. We sometimes believe so much in our assumptions that we forget they can be wrong or become obsolete over time.

Here is an illustration of the power of assumptions:

The team leader: “This is an emergency and we must move fast or we’ll be in deep trouble.”

The team member: “We’re fine and we have plenty of time to solve this problem.”

We fall into the attribution trap without realising it An attribution is the process by which we explain things according to our own mental programming. We believe that if we had said what the other person said, we would have meant a certain thing, ie A. But the other person is different and uses the same words with different meanings. Actually, he meant B. Here is an example:

The team leader: “When is the report going to be ready?” (The intention behind the team leader’s request can be summarised thus: “I’m empowering the team member who can decide on the time required to do the job.”)

The team member: “I don’t know yet. What do you think?” (The intention behind the team member’s response can be summarised thus:“The boss is putting the pressure on me. He should tell me when he expects the report to be ready.”)

We take shortcuts in our dealings with other people We are so impatient when we communicate that sometimes we don’t even listen to the completion of the other person’s message and cut him off by telling him that we understand. The main motivation for this ineffective way of exchanging ideas is to speed up the process of getting to the point and to move forward.

How many times do we experience the following:

The team leader: “It seems to me…”

The team member: “…that we are not going to make it.”

We are ‘ego’-centred individuals and therefore we ignore others Our ‘ego’ corresponds to the ‘image’ we want to give others of our values, beliefs, professional position or social status. We then feel that such characteristics give sense to our life, comprise our personal identity and determine the image people have of us. In short, our ‘ego’ is the self that we believe we are.

The purpose of our ego is to refocus everything on itself, on our personality, on our self. This has a special consequence for our relationships with others: when our ego is in control of our communication with another person, it occupies the whole space; there is no room for the other person anymore and no possibility of understanding him out of the prism that our ego imposes. It is the perfect absence of listening, the absence of the other.

The team leader: “It is my responsibility to provide orientations and arbitrate.” (The intention behind the team leader’s statement can be summarised thus: “I am a real boss, able to lead and make decisions.”)

The team member: “I must take the initiative.” (The intention behind the team member’s statement can be summarised thus:“If I don’t demonstrate what I am worth, the boss will have a poor idea of me.”)

Psychological stress leads us to defensive behaviours People are under stress when they appraise their relationship to the environment as taxing or exceeding their own resources (ie their emotional capital), and endangering their wellbeing.

A person, at the moment he is under psychological stress, perceives that his relation to the environment, particularly with respect to his relationships with others, will generate a net loss, or threatens a loss, of energy (ie emotional resources). He tends to take a defensive posture in the utilisation of his energy and in his relationship to others. He tends to favour strategies that shield him from a potential loss of resource. He becomes ‘greedy’ in the way he uses his emotional resources, and does not try to feel empathy towards others. This results in a vicious spiral, where he does not understand others, does not give them positive energy and does not get positive energy in return.

On one hand, his emotional resources deteriorate while, on the other, the risk of ‘malentendu’, from the lack of mutual empathy, increases.

The team leader: “The problem is yours.” (The intention behind the team leader’s statement can be summarised thus: “This person will pump up my energy levels.”)

The team member: “Things are very difficult for me at the moment.” (The intention behind the team member’s statement can be summarised thus: “I need my boss’s help.”)

Three main factors

Three key factors reinforce our attitudes or predispositions to act in the ways we have described above. Let us now consider each in turn.

In most cases, an unconscious fear drives our attitudes and behaviours. It operates covertly and gives rise to several inclinations:

  • fear of having to question our assumptions (first inclination)
  • fear of having to change our frame of reference (second inclination)
  • fear of wasting time (third inclination)
  • fear of having to review the image we want to have of ourselves (fourth inclination)
  • fear of wasting energy (fifth inclination).

All these fears are dysfunctional, since they correspond to imaginary dangers, and often lead to inappropriate and ineffective actions. We waste time and energy, we adversely affect our image and, instead of making us stronger, such fears make us more rigid and vulnerable.

In the situations we have described above, people adopt a self-centred orientation. They give themselves priority and forget that sound communication requires that full attention and empathy is given to other parties.

They give priority to their:

  • assumptions (first mechanism)
  • judgments of others (second mechanism)
  • economy of time (third mechanism)
  • ego (fourth mechanism)
  • the protection of their energetic capital (fifth mechanism).

We should forget our opinions and beliefs momentarily, so that we are able to remain open to others, understand them and give honest feedback. In this way we will avoid the potential for ‘malentendus’.

Cultural programming is also a major source of ‘malentendu’. The iceberg metaphor is often used to define a culture. The visible part, eg behaviours, ways of living, cooking, eating, arts or organisation modes, rest upon a more important, invisible part: the values, norms and beliefs that provide meaning and a foundation to the visible part of the iceberg.

When we meet with culturally different people, it is a little bit like two icebergs meeting and the following questions arise:

  • are we aware of the invisible part of the other person’s ‘iceberg’?
  • is the other person aware of our invisible part?
  • is each one of us aware of his own invisible part?
  • on what basis, visible or invisible, do we found our perceptions or interpretations of the other person’s behaviours?

We understand that our own perceptions, even where they may be justified, might be incomplete and need to be put into perspective. We also grasp that other people’s perceptions, even where they may also be justified, might be incomplete and need to be put into perspective. We also feel how much we need the help of the other person to be able to see what he sees, and how much he needs our help to be able to see what we see.

The impact of ‘malentendu’

Leaders should be aware that the belief in understanding each other when, actually, we don’t can have both good and bad consequences:

  • good We can discover some interesting things about other people, and even ourselves, when we become aware of our biased interpretations of them. ‘Malentendus’ can be a source of discoveries and creativity as long as they are acknowledged properly
  • bad Many conflicts and destructive consequences arise as a result of the failure to recognise ‘malentendus’. Some people have developed the art of making sure that others are convinced that they got it when it is not true at all. Negotiations of all types are loaded with this kind of manipulative behaviour.

Caring about the truth

Assuming there is such a thing as the ‘truth’, leaders must realise that the process by which we try to grasp reality is more important than the end result. This is because:

  • the end result is never the definitive truth that we were looking for or expected. It is rather a fluid state of affairs that we may never fully understand because, perhaps, it never existed in the first place
  • as we collaborate in a process of mutual exploration, trying to determine, as best we can, the true nature of reality, we experience a meeting of minds that can be more important than achieving the end result of our quest
  • the big dilemma we all face is deciding between the certainty of our own consistency and the uncertainty (and strangeness) of other people’s other rationality
  • the exposure to another perception of what seems to be reality can be enlightening and rewarding. We can learn and grow from the experience.


We must acknowledge that, although most instances of ‘malentendus’ give rise to a breakdown in communication, they can also, surprisingly, provide a source of reinvention and creativity. Think about it!

About the author

Professor Pierre Casse is professor of leadership at Moscow School of Management – SKOLKOVO; he can be contacted via www.skolkovo.ru

Professor Robert Weisz is professor of organisational behaviour and organisational development at IAE-Aix en Provence; he can be contacted via www.iae-aix.com

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