- A Stanford professor wrote in The Wall Street Journal about a common mistake CEOs make every day.
- An offhand remark by the boss could drive employees to go above and beyond to meet their request – even if they didn’t mean anything by the comment.
- To avoid this, make it clear when you’re discussing ideas versus making a decision.
We often think out loud or make errant observations as small talk – whether it’s about the weather, sports, or food.
But when a CEO says what they might think is just a random comment, the effect of their words can be outsized.
Robert Sutton, professor of management at Stanford University and author of “The No Asshole Rule,” wrote about the tendency for leaders to waste their employees’ time without even realizing it in a recent leadership column in The Wall Street Journal.
“They give orders without realizing how much work those directives entail,” Sutton wrote. “They make offhand comments and don’t consider that their employees may interpret them as commands.”
Sutton referred to one story of a CEO who randomly said at a breakfast meeting that there weren’t any blueberry muffins. The CEO didn’t particularly adore blueberry muffins, but he was just making an casual remark.
But the reaction was decidedly not casual. Sutton wrote how his staff busied themselves making sure that every meeting he had from then on was stocked with blueberry muffins. It wasn’t until years later that the CEO found out why there were mountains of blueberry muffins at all of his appointments.
“Leaders don’t mean to waste their employees’ time,” Sutton wrote. “Unfortunately, many of them heap unnecessary work on the people below them in the pecking order – and are downright clueless that they’re doing it.”
It’s one thing when a team launches a muffin campaign – but sometimes an offhanded remark can waste millions of dollars.
Another anecdote of Sutton’s describes a CEO of a retail chain who casually whined about a rude clerk to some of his employees. Unwittingly, that remark launched a multi-million, years-long internal customer service training initiative.
But the CEO never really believed such a campaign was necessary. Years later, the leader had to order the intiative to end.
Some leaders have recognized that a team’s willingness to drop everything to cater to the boss, without question, doesn’t benefit anyone. When Adena Friedman became CEO of Nasdaq, she and her team started to reform the workplace culture to be more open and collaborative, she recently told Business Insider.
“(T)he former style within Nasdaq was very much a command-and-control style, which meant that the leader, once they said something it happened, right?” Friedman said. “And so it was before I became CEO, and I started realizing that every time I said something, everything just happened, even if it was just an idea, right?”
To help that, she draws a line between “light bulbs” and “mandates.” If she has a lightbulb, it’s an idea on the table that she wants to discuss openly with her employees, encouraging them to think of her as a peer. But when she’s made a choice, that’s a mandate.
“I do think that it makes it so it’s a more open environment,” Friedman said.
Sutton also encouraged leaders to draw a line between commands and random ideas or remarks. He recommends saying: “Please don’t do anything, I am just thinking out loud.”
Read the rest of Sutton’s column on The Wall Street Journal.