When `Yes’ means `No’

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but as you get more senior, people in the office seem to argue with you less. And by the time you become a really big cheese, just about everyone seems to agree with you. (I noticed when I first started being promoted that I got better and better at telling jokes ….. well employees certainly laughed more, the more senior I became).

The trouble is people can say `Yes’ at a meeting and yet the initiative they’ve agreed to somehow gets stuck and nothing seems to happen. This is incredibly frustrating.

It took me a good few years to work out what was going on. If a room full of execs say `Yes’ you can divide them into five groups in terms of what they really mean:-

1. “Yes, it’s a great idea – let’s go do it!”
2. “Yes it’s a good idea – I’ll fit it somehow into my busy schedule.”
3. “Yes, it’s ok as an idea and it’s alright for the boss to suggest it, but the reality is that I’ve got much more important things to get on with right now”.
4. “Of course I said `Yes’ but it’s a typical initiative from upstairs: they haven’t got a clue what’s going on! I’ll totally ignore it. You watch, there’ll be another so-called initiative in a few months time and they’ll have forgotten this one.”
5. “I said `Yes` but there’s no way this is going to happen! It means I’ve got to change the department around yet again, and work with those a***holes down the corridor. He must be joking!”

So it’s no surprise that so many initiatives fail. With a young, agile company that has consistently seen success the only enemy is likely to be pressure of work. So you need to be sensitive to that and see if your team can work differently and not just harder (1, 2 and 3 above).

If a Company is long-established, change is more difficult and if it also has long-established senior execs then expect a reactionary response (3, 4, and 5 above).
And if you are a small company taking over a big one, expect lots of this treatment. I remember years ago, leading a planned reverse takeover and in my naivety, I allowed the long-serving corporate cynics in the bigger company to kill the deal (too many Category 5 people).
I’ve now learnt that, in all cases you must seed the idea in advance: you need to ask for the prime mover’s input. And you need to be seen to respond to their comments and recognise their input.
As always, just as in politics and big company boardrooms, all the key work is done before the meeting.
I can understand if you don’t like all this but if that’s the case, stop chasing growth and keep your company small – really small!

  • James Cronin

    Yep, Chris, textbook ‘frozen middle’ syndrome.

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