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Just Say No
by Margaret Heffernan

You can build a great reputation just by communicating fast.

Many years ago, I worked as a commissioning editor for BBC Television. This meant that I received and evaluated proposals for new TV shows from independent producers who hoped the BBC would fund, or at least develop, their idea. The market was fiercely competitive and, to a large degree, it was a buyer’s market. There were far more producers than there were slots or money so the BBC could afford to pick and choose.

The number of proposals I received was overwhelming. Sometimes they would come as bound books containing hundreds of pages. Sometimes they’d be a few scraps of paper. As the market grew more competitive, they’d arrive in increasingly fanciful packaging – the one I most remember came in the basket of a small hot air balloon – indicative of a desperate desire to be noticed and maybe even remembered.

The thicker they came, the faster I read and decided which ones to think about and discuss with colleagues, which ones to reject. I tried hard to keep up, to stop my office becoming impassable with outlines. So, unless the idea was fantastic, I sent it back as soon as I’d read it, with a nice letter saying ‘no thanks’.

For years afterwards, I’d encounter producers who would thank me, effusively, for the way I’d dealt with their proposals. But I’d turned them down; why would they thank me? Because I’d been quick to make my mind up, let them know, and free them to work on other broadcasters or other ideas. I discovered they really appreciated being told no. I didn’t realize, at the time, how unusual that was. But now, all around me, I watch companies who can’t bring themselves to use the awful ‘n’ word. Silence has become the corporate way of saying no.

It’s most hurtful when it comes to job interviews. When I first moved to America, I was shocked to discover it was standard practice to follow up only with interviewees that were seen as having potential. The rest? They were just left in ethereal silence. No news was bad news.

This strikes me as the height of discourtesy. A candidate does all the work of applying for a job, presumably doing some homework into the company, taking time off work to come in for an interview – and companies can’t spare the effort to send a standard rejection letter? And yet every candidate is like the producers I used to work with: they need to be liberated to move onto the next possibility.

The corporate silence is really cowardice. Companies are afraid to continue the dialogue. Some argue – foolishly – that they don’t want to leave themselves open to litigation. (It is possible to write letters that don’t!) But, at heart, I think the hiring bosses simply don’t want to be the bad guys. So to spare themselves psychic suffering, they palm it off on to everyone else they know.

Nobody likes writing rejection letters, just like no one likes having to handle that difficult performance review where all the feedback isn’t overwhelmingly positive. And so conflict-averse managers try to avoid the subject altogether. In one company I knew, which prided itself on its integrity, this same conflict aversion afflicted succession planning. As its senior HR director told me the story.

“When I was working with the CEO on succession planning, one candidate was very smart but a pain in the ass, a terrible communicator, an awful manager but also probably the smartest person in the organization. He saw himself as heir apparent. But in my conversation with the CEO, I learned he was 6th or 7th in line. So I said, "You know, Rob's perception is that he's heir apparent."

"Oh yeah, I know,” replied the CEO. “But he has all these problems."

"So how are we going to help him be successful? How are we going to tell him these are impediments to his success here?”

"We can't have that conversation. He might get upset and leave."

"But if you don't have that conversation, he still won't get the job and then he WILL leave. Why can't we be honest with this guy? You can't say you value integrity if you cannot have this conversation."

Instead of having the hard conversation, what the company got was a mutually assured stalemate. The boss wouldn’t talk to the manager and the manager wouldn't ask about succession. No one could move forward, no one could succeed.

In another company today, I’m watching the same stalemate develop. The CEO is so loathe to confront his immediate subordinate with his failings that he’s contemplating restructuring the entire company! He’d rather hide behind one big reorganization than have one difficult, conversation.

In mutually assured stalemates, the dominant party often thinks they’re being kind. I think they’re being cowardly. As my friend, the HR director said, “Integrity is not just not stealing from clients. It is about telling the truth.”

Almost any communication – however negative – is preferable to silence. However unpleasant the information or feedback may be, it allows others to make informed decisions in their own time. Silence, by contrasts, leaves them stuck, unsure when or whether to move, unclear whether action is needed or not. What I learned from my television days is that when you tell people the truth, in a timely fashion, you show them respect. And that’s how you earn it too.

Copyright Margaret Heffernan. All Rights Reserved.

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