One of our Academy members reached out to me awhile back. He was handling a delicate situation in his organization, requiring him to navigate tons of internal politics.
He needed to suddenly give a lot of people a company line he didn’t exactly agree with. He didn’t have ethical objections to the change, but it noticeably didn’t align with the path he’d been cultivating for his team.
He knew people would officially accept it, but also that some of his most trusted employees would ask him questions in private.
The complex politics of the moment were such that it simply wasn’t appropriate for him to say anything in the short-term, even in private, that deviated from the official message. He was part of a large bureaucracy and playing the long-game.
His question to me:
How do I say something when I shouldn’t say anything?
It reminded me about a discussion I had years ago with a former boss. I was making a courtesy request for something that I thought was a formality. Instead of the “yes” I was used to, I got an uncharacteristically quick denial, followed by silence.
Surprised, I asked for a bit more explanation, only to get basically the same response, worded in a slightly different way. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, since I had a great relationship with my boss and he regularly shared his thinking behind almost every decision.
Before I determined how to proceed with the conversation, he offered this:
Maybe you noticed what I didn’t say.
I instantly understood: I see you, I’m with you, but I can’t touch this politically right now.
I am an optimist who believes in transparency and trust in organizations.
And I’m a realist too. As much as I’d love to convince myself that every leader, customer, and organization is ready for full transparency, sometimes the moment isn’t right, and may do more harm than good.
Use this sparingly with the right people. However, when you’re playing the long-game, sometimes it’s helpful to acknowledge what wasn’t said.
Like that country song goes, occasionally you say it best, when you say nothing at all.