Beware the Casual Thought

The Scene of the Crime

One of the things I hear so often from leaders I’ve worked with is how quickly a casual comment of theirs got blown out of proportion. It’s almost as if the simple, off-hand remark they made a couple of months ago grew legs and got a life of its own.

They discover someone working on something unexpected and ask “why the heck are you doing that?” And the junior manager will say “Because you told us to. Remember back in the bathroom at the conference last May when you said you wished someone would tackle that problem? Well I built a team of 30 and we’ve been working on it ever since.”

In stunned horror they suddenly realize that a tiny offhand comment became a project. They can’t be wildly upset, after all, it took a very proactive manager to get wind of a problem and work so hard to resolve it. But they can’t understand how anyone would interpret that simple, casual remark as a directive.

They can’t understand how anyone would interpret that simple, casual remark as a directive.

There are two kinds of common overreactions to this problem: 1) the leader never speaks without written notes ever again, or 2) they implement ridiculous controls on the organization so that it never happens again. As in most things, however, the best result is somewhere in the middle. After all, you can’t become the kind of stiff mannequin who never utters a casual comment ever again, that just stifles the whole organization. And you certainly don’t want to build a culture where everyone is in fear of acting in a proactive way. That’s the exact opposite of the organization you need to be working toward.

I recommend that you never overreact when you discover these kinds of rogue, skunk-works projects that you inadvertently kicked off. Do not chastise anyone, especially not in public for this. People absolutely need to feel empowered to take on organizational issues on their own. You certainly don’t want to stifle this kind of proactive creativity. If you must stop the project, pull the manager aside later and quietly explain that, while it may be an issue for the organization, it certainly isn’t a priority right now, and you definitely didn’t mean for them to go off and work on it. You need to apologize for misleading them (I know you didn’t , but they think you did), and you need to handle the situation with delicacy, and perhaps a little humor.

At the other end of the spectrum, please, please, don’t put in draconian controls to require every tiny little project in the organization to meet with your approval. This kind of micro-management kills organizations. Each level of an organization needs to feel like it can work to solve the important issues that fall in its realm. Putting up hurdles and passing judgment on everything anyone does just makes life miserable for everyone, including you.

More important is a clearly stated vision for the organization.

More important and more effective than this level of micro-management is a clearly stated vision for the organization. This vision includes organizational priorities that are so well known as to be second nature to all, including that junior manager in the washroom. With things that clear and obvious, they will recognize the casual remark as just that, a passing fancy that was never intended to initiate any serious effort or action.

I’ve seen this happen so often, it is easily one of the most common issues for leaders to face, especially new leaders. I’ll discuss more of this later, but it is extremely common for new leaders to not understand all the power that comes with their position. Unspoken and unwanted reverence for their every word is just one side effect that new leaders often never knew was coming with the job.

As the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for, you may actually get it.