Spotty Connections

Don’t you hate it when you say something and the other party doesn’t answer? You’re left wondering if they didn’t hear you well and repeat the request, wait in silence, or just give up. Oh, I’m not talking about choppy Zoom calls. This is just how badly too many leaders seem to be communicating nowadays. It looks like we’re content with lousy, unreliable communication skills. Rest assured, you can improve there and place yourself in the top 3% of leaders merely by strategically choosing how much bandwidth you make available.

Why So Unresponsive?

Let’s start by understanding why this has become a norm. Put simply, managers are so bombarded by questions, requests, and incoming queries that they act like an old network hub that can’t keep up with your downloads: things get dropped. In an age where “inbox zero” is a joke for many who screenshot their email or Slack inboxes showing mind-boggling unread counts, we succumb to letting things fall between the cracks.

As we’ll discuss in a minute, that’s not necessarily a bad thing to do. However, if you don’t intentionally choose when you do that, said cracks tend to widen. Eventually, Slack adds an automatic reply to any DM you get. “MIND THE GAP.” (OK, we’re not there yet, but give the LLMs another month or two.)

When you have a reputation for being unresponsive or flakey, there are consequences. You lost hard-gained trust. People assume you are not accountable. They stop approaching you, even for things you’d like to know. Therefore, this option has to use sparingly. There are many alternatives between providing a fully fleshed-out answer or decision and simply ignoring the request.

The Response Buffet

Ideally, you would only be approached for things you deem worthy of your attention. For example, your managers would be autonomous enough to make decisions that don’t really warrant your authority. You can achieve that by teaching your team to become more independent without resorting to ghosting.

The Black Hole: Well, you can still ignore them. However, I’d suggest a slight upgrade to the regular black hole that provides a clear “not interested” message. That is, instead of ghosting them, which means the person that asked you will keep waiting for some time and learn not to trust you, just reply with an agreed upon “no comment” reply. Creating such shibboleths in your culture that allow you to end a discussion succinctly is great. So, if you reply “no comment,” the inquiring manager knows that you’re essentially saying, “This is not something that I have the bandwidth to handle and that I believe you can make a decision without me. Go ahead; I trust you.”

Async-ify: This is incredibly useful for the kind of requests one gets between meetings or when someone walks up to your desk while you’re in the middle of something. Asking them to turn the question into an async one puts the onus on them to decide how important it is to warrant writing it all down and waiting.

Shift to approval mode: Just because someone asked you doesn’t mean you have to come up with the answer yourself. In fact, for better coaching, it is often better to start by asking them what they think should be done or what options they see. This is how I address most of my advisory clients’ questions. First, it practices their thinking and prevents the creation of codependency. Second, it saves us both time. And third, it helps them trust their instincts when they see their suggestion is chosen.

By the way, this harkens to Andy Grove’s bit about resolving conflict. The two people who disagree should come up with options to be presented to their common manager. In most cases, we hope they’ll find a good compromise by doing this. Otherwise, the manager will decide, even though managers usually have less information than anyone else involved.

Delegate completely: We’ve come full circle. Hopefully, after practicing the previous options for a while, your team has strengthened its leadership and autonomy muscles enough to take some of the load off your shoulders. When this happens, you no longer need to trigger the shibboleth we discussed. Your people will make the decisions and loop you in when necessary. You’re all spending more time within your genius zones and less time “blocking” for an answer.

A nice benefit of all this is that instead of ignoring or letting things fall through the cracks, your team and your peers learn that you are accountable. In those cases where you choose to be in charge of something, you’re far more likely to act on it. In the other cases, they have reasoning and understand what’s going on. That means that you’re likely to be gaining more trust, and that, in turn, generates healthy relationships. That’s how executives ensure that people will speak up about issues, provide them with feedback, and cultivate the openness needed for peak innovation (as per my latest book).