The silence of the lambs
Time is a non-replenishable resource. I say that a lot.
Time is the only thing we will only ever have less of. It sounds awful because it is and if that doesn’t make us mindful about how we spend our time and that of others then I don’t know what can.
And yet so much of what we do in life and at work is designed to ‘buy time’. Which is a nonsense expression. You are not buying time. You are just stalling or waiting or scrambling to do something and avoiding all conversation in the hope that something will change in the meantime.
What are you hoping for, in the period when you are not telling the people waiting to hear from you what is happening?
Sometimes, time elapsing is absolutely a legit input.
You are waiting for an invoice to be paid or your invoice financing to be arranged before making a financial commitment. That’s not buying time, of course, that’s sequencing your dependencies. But you may not want to tell your supplier that because it makes you look financially brittle, so you tell them nothing.
You go strangely quiet while taking necessary steps in the background.
They may think it is odd. They may not. They may chase you. They may not.
They may wonder. They may not.
If they wonder, they fill the silence with their own assumptions.
Sometimes the stalling is genuinely that. Stalling.
You haven’t done the work so you are hiding behind the curtain, not answering emails and not returning calls in the hope that other priorities will distract whoever is chasing you. I once had to send a colleague to stand by someone’s desk across the ocean after being ignored for months, while something promised to a client six months previously was done. While he stood there. Like an avenging angel.
It could be that you have gone quiet because someone else hasn’t done their part of a shared assignment so you can’t go ahead without them and you don’t want to drop them in it, so when another colleague or client asks for an update it is easier to not respond for a few days in the hope that Clive over there pulls his finger out and does the needful.
And then you get a second chaser, so you nudge Clive but of course the people chasing you don’t know that. All they know is you are kinda ignoring them and it’s getting a little irritating. And disrespectful. Which is how you feel about Clive right now, only they don’t know that.
Or it could be that you are ‘buying time’ because you made a mistake so you are not buying time at all, rather you are trying to fix whatever went wrong, mop up a mess, re-do whatever didn’t work out.
Or it could be that you are ignoring the other person, ghosting them entirely, because you know they won’t like what you have to say and you can either not be bothered with a difficult conversation or you’re too scared to have it or you’re waiting until the thing you have to say changes to something you are happy sharing or someone else turns up to share the bad news or a nuclear apocalypse gives us all bigger things to worry about… and until then… you are ‘buying time’ by not engaging.
What the other side receive, of course, is silence.
And if they wonder why you are silent, if they chase you and ask the question and get more silence or subterfuge or faux formality about due process, then they fill the silence with their own assumptions.
Irrespective of whether they are a colleague, supplier, industry contact or client, they fill the silence with their own assumptions.
And what are those assumptions based on?
Well. You for starters. Have you done this before? Are you in the habit of ‘buying time’ like this often? Going silent when the news isn’t good, when you’ve made a mistake, under-estimated the work or over-estimated the complexity of something you promised?
Are you prone to sending stern messages around approvals and sign-offs when asked why something promised weeks ago isn’t here and why the last five emails went unanswered?
The second is themselves.
Has this happened to them before (sadly, the answer is always yes) and was the outcome benign or not?
Is the experience of being given the run-around like this the cost of doing business but all comes out in the wash in the end so no harm, no foul, the invoice gets paid… in the end? Or do they have experience of this sort of thing happening only to find that their supplier had not adequately managed resource allocation, that their HR team had not accrued properly for bonuses and actually silence came before disaster?
Actually, on one occasion a bank I worked for had not accrued at all for third parties for a whole month. May, specifically. Don’t ask me why, don’t ask me how. I don’t know. What I do know is that they went strangely quiet for a few months before they broke the news to all affected. The months, one presumes, between discovering the boo-boo, trying to cover it up, trying to fix it without admitting the mistake, trying to find another way around it and realising May is real and the only way to deal with not having money for May is either asking the Higher Ups for more money or telling the suppliers to all go on holiday in May.
No prizes for guessing that the latter was done because managing slipping deadlines is a problem that can be dealt with silence and obfuscation on another day whereas going up the food chain to explain you are human and made a stupid mistake is not for the faint-hearted.
So ‘buying time’ is a euphemism for avoiding a difficult conversation more times than not. It is rarely a case of ‘quick, Thor, distract the bad guy while Captain America stealthily disables the ticking bomb’. It is rather usually a case of awkward silence while we hope that we won’t have to admit an error, oversight or delay. So we go quiet until the news is good. Late, but good.
Or we go quiet until we have no choice but to stop being quiet.
And time goes by.
The time we will never have more of.
But you know what else is wasted during that time? Trust.
Trust, unlike time, you can have more of, as you can always build and gain trust and deepen relationships. But once squandered, you can’t take it back. Just like time.
Have the difficult conversation.
Say we had a delay. We hit a roadblock. I under-estimated how long getting round every department would take. My suppliers are giving me the run-around and I can’t do this with you before they pay me. I forgot May. Whatever. Speak.
It may be difficult.
It will be difficult.
And it may not save time in that it may be entirely outside your control to bring the desired outcome forward.
But it will build trust.
And trust me when I say, you can never have too much trust.
And since you can’t get it back once you’ve squandered it, but you can always double down to protect it: speak. And by speaking, build trust, even when time is not your friend. Even when the news is bad. Even when you can’t affect the outcome and you have nothing good to say. Even then, silence is very rarely a good long-term strategy.
Because whatever the thing happening now, this type of problem will happen again. Difficulties, delays and mistakes will happen again.
And you are teaching your counterparts what kind of person you are and they will remember. And fill the silence with assumptions.
Or this will happen again… and you will be at the receiving end of the silence at a critical time and you will have taught these folks that it’s absolutely acceptable to leave you hanging. So they will.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!