Monday, August 8, 2011

Avoiding responsibility with mitigated speech

[EDIT: Comments here and elsewhere have made it clear to me that I should have been a lot more careful in how I wrote this -- in particular, I think it would have been much better as a more personal narrative, about tendencies I have, at times, noticed in myself. Sometimes I've used this 'mitigated speech' in ways or for reasons that I think I should avoid. Certainly in many, many situations, 'mitigated speech' is very helpful to achieving the goals at hand. Sometime I want to take a more thorough look at indirectness and its uses. This should have been more about particular behaviors in a particular environment in a particular person (me) -- sorry!]

Our managers at work recently read Gladwell's Outliers (warning: I haven’t read it), in which he popularized the notion of mitigated speech (or ‘deferential’ speech), which he defines as "any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said".

Here are six degrees of mitigation:

1. Command – “Strategy X is going to be implemented”
2. Team Obligation Statement – “We need to try strategy X”
3. Team Suggestion – “Why don’t we try strategy X?”
4. Query – “Do you think strategy X would help us in this situation?”
5. Preference – “Perhaps we should take a look at one of these Y alternatives”
6. Hint – “I wonder if we could run into any roadblocks on our current course”

These were each role-played for us with an airplane pilot and copilot, where the copilot had information essential to not crashing the plane. (Apparently, mitigated speech actually causes plane crashes.) In some of the examples (“Do you think we should turn around [instead of crashing into...]?”), mitigated speech prevented the copilot’s message from getting through. I think the lesson we were supposed to take away was pretty simple (too simple!):

1. Sometimes people use mitigated speech, especially when there is a difference of power/position in the hierarchy.
2. Mitigated speech is a form of not saying what you mean.
3. It may be appropriate to temper/mitigate your speech, depending on
your position in the hierarchy. (This is interesting -- not explored very far then, and I won't explore it further myself here.) HOWEVER::
4. Always be aware of what message your trying to convey.

Like I said, too simple -- I don’t think this message will work, because I think it ignores the real reason people talk this way: mitigated speech is a form of cowardice. I’m generalizing here mostly from observing myself, but I’ve seen it enough in others that I think it’s pretty common. It’s what we do when we’re afraid to take responsibility for what we have to say. Sometimes I’ve been working on a project where I thought something should go differently, and I said “Shouldn’t we maybe do ____ because of ____?” Then we did what I thought we shouldn’t do, and it sometimes turned out I was right, and then I thought (wrongly) to myself: “I called that one! I told them it wouldn’t work!”

Of course, I hadn’t actually told them it wouldn’t work. I hadn’t actually said anything. One of the things I’ve been learning is to, in the words of a recent episode of the Lifestyle Business Podcast (focused on advice/encouragement for people starting their own businesses, but it’s useful for those of us inside big companies too, especially those with an intrapreneurial innovation style):

You should “step up and say this is how I think things should go, and this is the
plan”. Give me "something to react to". It helps to be "taking a stand ... so at least you have a way forward".
I really like this idea that taking a stand is the way forward. It’s frustrating when everyone says “it could be this...” or “maybe that...”. Someone should just decide what they think! Propose a plan! That forces the rest of to decide what we think (agree, disagree, whatever), and then we can make some progress. Importantly, this isn’t just a different rhetorical style. It’s actually hard work to decide what you think, and then propose and defend it. But that’s exactly the idea -- forcing ourselves to do that hard work.

And it’s okay to be wrong sometimes. Fear of being wrong is another force (besides laziness) driving us toward “mitigated speech.” So we have to be able trust that we can maintain our credibility in the face of being wrong -- that means trusting in ourselves to deserve the credibility (and of course, having the skills/knowledge to actually deserve it), but also trusting in others not to loose faith.

Learning to trust my colleagues is something else that I believe has helped take a stand more often. I’m lucky I have great people to work with.

In summary: We often use this ‘deferential’ speech, especially with people in positions of power. But those people are busy! They don’t always want you deferring to them for every decision. Of course, someone more powerful than you will often have the final say to decide otherwise. But even that can be made easier for them if you first decide what you think, and then tell them.

Finally, here’s another tip from Ian and Dan in the same episode of the Lifestyle Business Podcast. I think this can also apply in the corporate world as in their entrepreneurial world:

"#5 never ask anything more complicated than a 'yes'"

"If you're asking for resources, or money, or time ... get it all set
up so all you need is that person to say YES. That demonstrates that
you're competent, that you care, and that you're willing to take
responsibility. ... [as a simple example:] -- the
smallest deal possible is getting a cup of coffee with somebody. 'How
do you feel about grabbing a cup of coffee sometime?' It's bad enough
that you want me to figure out how we're going to be doing this, when
we're going to be doing this, or even if I want to be doing this. But
you want to know about my feelings, too? I've gotta write a
5-paragraph essay to this person. Give me "I'm gonna be at the
Starbucks at 8pm Wednesday night. Can you swing by? Just make it easy
on me."