14 Mar 2017 19:46 IST

Silence is not always golden

Pic credit: Aleutie/Shutterstock

Freezing up in meetings just because there is ambiguity around issues won’t help

In one of my recent coaching experiences, a client organisation referred to me a leader who had a specific challenge. Here’s a little bit of background: The coachee-leader is an engineer who secured an MBA from one of the best-in-class B-schools in the US. He worked at a few well-known MNCs before joining his current employer, also a well-known employer brand in the software product space.

His challenge was that while he is comfortable being with juniors and colleagues whom he is familiar with, he freezes during meetings with seniors he is not so comfortable with. This, despite enough preparation. The discomfort increases when he is required to interact with overseas leaders, who come from different cultural backgrounds.

Across the table, when he talks to you, he is comfortable and articulate. His communication skills are impressive and he builds rapport quickly and easily. But in the kind of situations described above, he becomes rigid and diffident.

Managing up

When probed further, it became clear that he finds influencing seniors in short conversations in formal settings a very challenging task. This is not surprising, given that many senior managers have a problem ‘managing up’, particularly when they are overly-concerned with ‘doing an impressive job of communicating’ or ‘at a minimum, communicate without being misunderstood’.

As the coaching progressed, the coachee-leader realised that all that we communicate with our seniors:

~ Need not always be ‘black and white’. Even the senior-most leaders understand this.

~ It is not necessary that we be an ‘expert’ on every subject being discussed. Trust is built not only when we speak with authority of our knowledge, but also when we are comfortable saying ‘I don’t know’.

~ It is important to understand the difference between three different types of sharing we do:

a) When we have done the homework and have the data. We then share the data and the source, where it helps establish authenticity.

b) When we share data and add our interpretation of the information. We clarify that it is our interpretation.

c) When we do not have the data, but wish to share our opinion. And we clarify what we are sharing is our opinion.

If we believe that we can participate in meetings and make a contribution only if we ‘know it all’, it means we are being harsh on ourselves. In fact, considering the hyper-changing environments we all operate in, it is practically impossible (so, not desirable) to wait endlessly for all data and insights to become available.


Many years ago, the concept of “satisficing” came to be a Nobel-prize winning paradigm from Dr Herbert Simon. This paradigm, or decision-making model, suggests that leaders do not wait endlessly for complete information but learn to connect the dots with available information and data.

Leaders have to recognise that there are uncertainties all the time and waiting for perfect weather is not a good idea. In an ever-changing market landscape, leaders and firms have to move ahead with whatever inputs they have and do it with confidence and, where necessary, with a plan B.

Freezing up while in meetings just because there is ambiguity around the issues isn’t going to help. On the other hand, using tools like reframing the issue and the ladder of inference for connecting the dots will help.