This is the fifth in a series of twenty blogs based on the teachings of leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith. In his book What Got You There Won’t Get You There, he discusses the bad habits leaders can drift into whether through inattention or apathy. Bad Habit #5 is Starting With “No”, “But”, or “However,” as a way of responding to feedback given by team members. Meeting valid issues or genuine feedback with comments that dismiss or negate is ineffective in the moment, because you may miss an important concern, and in the long term, because this kind of response shuts down future participation. Goldsmith’s perspective is that this particular habit emerges when a speaker wants to signal agreement superficially, however, on a deeper level, he disagrees with the idea he has just heard. A leader may say, “That’s true, however…” to frame his disagreement in “agreeable” terms. Another example is responding with, “Yes, but …” The addition of “but” to “yes,” sets the stage for contradicting the speaker.
This bad habit does not refer to honest disagreement. Responding to someone by immediately countering the point with a “No” or a “But” or a “However,” is the best way to shut down the conversation before it even gets started. It sends a clear message that you are not willing to listen. Even though it may be a knee-jerk, subconscious response to something you would rather not know, responding in this way is usually all about the need to win or maintain a false sense of power. Most good leaders want to solicit input from their staff before making major decisions. Leaders who want honest responses from their folks may not realize that they are stifling the candor they seek because of a need to accomplish something and thereby ignore all naysayers, even ones who have valid points.
A high-profile example of this was unearthed in 1986 by the Rogers Commission, the group convened to investigate the cause of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Volume one of the commission’s report relays an engineer’s repeated attempts to persuade management to cancel the launch. After raising numerous safety concerns, he “…stopped when it was apparent that [he] couldn’t get anybody to listen.” The need to win [launch] was more important than the concerns of the engineers. You can imagine the responses to the lone voice warning that they weren’t ready, “No, but this failure hasn’t happened before. . .” Or, “However, the chances are good for a successful launch. . .” Winning at all costs can be disastrous.
This bad habit may also creep up during sensitive workplace discussions around gender or race issues. It may be hard for a leader to hear comments about workplace biases, especially if he or she has not directly experienced discrimination. An automatic response to the person raising such concerns is to negate them in some way. I have experienced this often as a minority female. On one occasion, I gathered my courage and shared my experience with bias in our organization. The response I got was, “Yeah, but Linda, you have done so well, after all, you are a successful CIO.” I call this the Oprah Winfrey Effect – well, look at Oprah? She’s successful, right? The meaning here is – “Linda, you’re wrong. There’s no bias against minority women. Oprah’s success proves it! Your success proves it. Therefore, I don’t have to consider what you have to say.”
Goldsmith likes to recommend that trusted subordinates “fine” leaders who display this bad habit. A monetary penalty could motivate a behavior change, or at the very least, alert the leader to a subconscious response that shuts down genuine conversation. Another, perhaps even better practice for leaders is to truly listen to themselves and ask some hard questions. When you hear yourself beginning sentences with “No” or “But” or “However,” ask yourself what it is that you’d rather not know? Do you find yourself wondering why people aren’t telling you the truth? Have you almost made a poor decision only to be saved from yourself by a nervous but brave subordinate who gave you the information you didn’t want to hear? Would you rather be right or more powerful than successful?
The best leaders and the best organizations are guilty of this bad habit. Avoiding disastrous results requires attention and intention. We must pay attention to the “No”, “But” and “However” statements that we make. Moreover, we must support the courageous leadership that is willing to break the silence, caused by a need to win at all costs, and say that which is hard to hear.
Linda Cureton is the CEO of Muse Technologies, Inc. and the former CIO of NASA. Muse Technologies helps organizations create and implement successful strategies by strengthening their leadership, insight, and technology expertise.