I am regularly surprised by the lack of conversational courage in professional circles these days. Not every conversation ends up with a great outcome. Sometimes you have to deliver disappointing information. You may even have to let someone go or fire them. You might have to tell a vendor you’ve decided to work with someone else. All of this is part of doing business. Every relationship hits a bump in the road eventually. The sooner you address it, the higher likelihood you will fix it or ensure it ends well. At minimum, never burn a bridge by treating someone badly. And, yes, silence and non-responsiveness is ill-treatment.
I honestly believe that when I started my career way back in the late 1980s, bosses did a much better job of communicating bad news. Now, with LinkedIn, Slack, text and incessant emails, there is always the excuse that the information slipped through the cracks or the person in question was just too busy. It also makes it much easier to hide from the consequences of cowardly behavior. In my experience the “busiest” person is often the least effective. With so many options to communicate there is little excuse for not communicating. Have the conversation and move on. It really is that simple. It also helps if you put yourself in the other person’s shoes before delivering the message, so you get it right.
Conversation avoidance is bad business etiquette. In a social climate where our stress is high and uncertainty is real, we have to be honest with each about the basic fundamental relational issues. Of course, no one likes to receive bad or disappointing news. However, it’s a part of life. Professionally ghosting someone who you actually agreed to meet with or speak with and then just leaving them hanging is not OK. What is okay is making a different decision or no decision at all, but then communicate it. Don’t leave the other person with false hope or force them to reach out multiple failed times with no success. One day the shoe will be on the other foot – remember that.
I don’t know if it’s a lack of basic manners or just emotional discomfort or both. I certainly understand screening unsolicited emails or communication. If someone you don’t know reaches out to you and you didn’t ask for that, then it’s on them to follow up or accept your silence as an answer. On the contrary, if you reached out to that person or exchanged emails with someone about a mutual opportunity or engagement, then it is not OK to simply ignore their emails or not follow up. You can also respond to a business introduction by simply saying, “nice to meet you but it’s not a good time for me right now so I will have to politely decline.” You’re never too busy to be professional and demonstrate good manners. And guess what, professional circles are small, and you will inevitably run into that person again. Why make things awkward that don’t have to be that way.
I also believe we don’t do people any favors when we avoid performance conversations. If you’re unhappy with the service you’re receiving, then by all means let that vendor or partner know. People can’t fix problems they aren’t fully aware of. And, to assume your business partners are mind readers and should know what you’re thinking is professionally immature. I’ve had far too many colleagues and clients tell me that one of their key partners just dropped them out of the blue with minimal or no advanced warning. This then sometimes ends up creating a crisis for them which was completely avoidable if there had been better communication. Something as simple as giving someone a “heads up” can make all the difference in their ability to respond to and adverse event. Ultimately all professional relationships run their course in some way, shape or form. Since we know this, why not handle it better and respect the previous good work you had done together.
When it comes to employees, performance conversations avoided or ignored never leads to better outcomes. Things don’t improve if they are left unaddressed. If you hope that someone will either just leave the organization of their own accord or magically turn around their performance without any feedback from you, then I think you’re living a bit of a leadership fantasy. There are no perfect employees or bosses and the only way to overcome our imperfections is to have the courage to address what’s broken to see if you both can fix it. Sometimes the answer is it’s unfixable, but even that can be handled honestly and fairly. Good people can be a bad fit for a role or in too far over their head to make it work. Treat them with respect when this happens and don’t make it personal. Letting them hang on a thread until you run out of patience or something blows up is an unwise management strategy.
I believe that things fall apart gradually then all at once. The divisiveness in our country and society as a whole is largely due to our inability to communicate differences of opinion and deal with relationship discomfort. In an adult-to-adult relationship, we are constantly talking about our shared expectations of one another and making sure we’re doing our part to hold up the bargain and addressing any gaps that exist. Leadership is never about doing what’s easy. Leadership is about doing what’s hard and what’s right. If you are avoiding conversations or ignoring following up with someone, this says more about you than them. You are also setting yourself up for similar treatment in the future because poor behavior has a way of coming back at you. Do the right thing. Have the conversation. Be polite. Be honest. Be professional. Demonstrate empathy. Be a leader! Stop avoiding your communication responsibilities.