Dubai: As many of you will know, “let’s study it” in management speak is a polite way of saying “No” to an idea. However, when eager employees mistake the implicit rejection for words of hope, leaders can find themselves in hot water. This is something I witnessed at a company not long ago and it made for an uncomfortable situation.
A junior manager approached his CEO with a proposal that he didn’t really like, but rather than being honest and clearly explaining why it was a non-starter, the chief chose to brush it aside and opted for a well-known delay tactic. “I’m not entirely sure about what you’re proposing,” he told the manager. “Why don’t you study it more and get back to me?”
The CEO is not a bad guy. In fact, his reaction came from a good place. Typically, leaders use “management speak” to avoid discouraging, demotivating or disengaging their teams. The result, however, is the same. Think about it, how many times have you taken the indirect route to “No” instead of shooting ideas down there and then?
By using this commonly practised management tactic, the CEO in question was quietly hoping that his employee would reach the same conclusion as him. That is, the sooner he gives up on the idea, the better.
The trouble was, all that the enthusiastic manager heard from his boss’s mouth were words of hope. As far as he was concerned, the door was still open. It was his chance to prove that his idea was worth pursuing.
So, he headed off with wind in his sails and did exactly what his boss had suggested: study the idea further. And he didn’t just study it, he engaged a number of colleagues to brainstorm the idea.
Unbeknown to the CEO, the proposal that he was inclined to say no to was gaining momentum and sapping even more time and resources from his team. The irony in all of this? This spiralling situation was all down to him.
What’s more, when the employee told his colleagues that he had been instructed to study the idea further and report back with more detail, those who had not shown any interest previously, suddenly wanted to be on-board.
As the team ploughed ahead, the CEO on the other hand, had completely forgotten about the idea. He had brushed it away the moment the young manager had left the room, proposal in hand. Only it hadn’t gone away.
Days later, the manager came back to his boss and asked when he would be free to discuss the idea. “What idea?” asked the CEO. “You know, the one we spoke about before and you said I should study it more,” replied the junior.
It was then that all of the CEO’s efforts not to discourage, demotivate or disengage his team backfired. All of a sudden, he was left with no alternative but to hit him with the truth: he was not going to take up his idea after all.
With that, the damage was done. Not only was one employee left disheartened, a whole team was now demotivated and annoyed that their time had been wasted and their hopes dashed. By telling the manager that he should study his idea further, the CEO was hoping to softly put him off, but instead, he spurred him on even more and prompted him to involve others in the process.
That is, until he shot the whole thing down. “Why does the boss have us work on things that he isn’t even interested in?” members of the team asked. Of course, that was never the CEO’s intention, but to their minds, that is exactly what he had done.
How did this happen? The CEO asked himself. Well, the answer was, he relied on implicit communication in the hope that his team would get the message.
The lesson? Know when to be explicit. Be open, be kind, but always be clear.
Tommy Weir is the founder and CEO of EMLC Leadership Ai Lab and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.