Signaling Effectively

I’ve always been fascinated by turn signals on cars.

It’s such a simple thing.

You make the left light blink on the rear of your car to signal to others that you intend to change lanes or make a left turn.

I’m fascinated by the dynamics around what happens when signals aren’t sent or when others don’t like your signal.

In a traffic jam, signaling your intention to change lanes often causes adversarial drivers to close the gap, making it impossible for you to change lanes safely.

If you don’t signal and just change lanes, it’s a less safe lane change. You put all drivers at a higher risk (including yourself), but you don't give an adversary advanced notice of your intentions.

There have been times on the freeway when I’ve wanted to change lanes but a car was blocking me. When this recently happened, I was irritated at first, thinking of the other driver as an adversary.

However, I signaled my intent anyway and the other driver recognized what I was trying to do. In response, he started signaling back. It turns out, he wanted to change to the lane I was in and I was blocking him!

In a moment of simultaneous recognition, we realized we were not in competition for the same piece of real estate on the road.

In the end, I sped up slightly and changed to his lane. He slowed down slightly and changed to mine. Over the span of a few seconds, we safely swapped lanes on the road.

It turns out, signaling works well in cooperative environments. Signaling also works well to shift ambiguous environments to cooperative ones.

In the workplace, your words are your signals.

To be an effective signaler, you want your signals and your words to be perceived as accurate.

This means two things:

  1. Your signals match your actions.
  2. Your actions match your signals.

In other words...

  1. You say what you mean.
  2. You mean what you say.

When your words and actions are congruent and consistent over long periods of time, people trust you more.

Congruency + Consistency = Trust

Trust takes years to build and only moments to destroy. The fastest way to destroy trust is to send false signals by saying one thing and doing another.

At best, it creates confusion. At worst, it signals you’re an adversary.

It’s worth considering:

  1. Do you say what you mean?
  2. Do you mean what you say?

If not, why not?

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2 comments… add one
  • larry Jan 4, 2020, 7:14 am

    Hi Victor,

    I chanced upon your website while looking to sharpen my strategic thinking skills and wanted to say the clarity of thinking shines through your content and has been very helpful thank you.

    On your post, I feel what should have been a really straightforward thing ends up being complicated because people decide how to act based on how they think others are thinking.

    As I see it, the world has no lack of training on helping people say what they mean. This comes in the form of communication, presentation skills training etc.

    Yet when it comes to training to mean what they say…there is comparatively little in the form of guiding people to grow character and integrity. That said, I’m hopeful that the universe is a friendly one, and that there is some reckoning that’s happening to get us closer to that ideal of being able to signal effectively as human beings. (My issue tree though consists of just 1 branch though so I’ll just continue synthesizing before I get it to 3 to share!)

    • Victor Cheng Feb 13, 2020, 4:02 pm


      Changing the world is very difficult. It’s far easier to change yourself. One thing I pay attention to is whose words match their actions, and whose actions match their words. When those things match, my trust in that person goes up. When they don’t, it goes down. It’s not always due to malice. I think more often it’s due to a lack of maturity. My kids words and actions don’t often match. As a result, when they say they will do something, I do not automatically assume they will. I verify far more often than someone’s words and actions related to me has match 100% of the time over 15 years. The key is to recognize whether specific individuals signals can be relied upon and they adjust/adapt as needed to still be able to meet your needs.


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