John Hay Whitney started the first venture capital firm, financed Gone With the Wind and Minute Maid orange juice, served as Eisenhower's ambassador to Great Britain, and was one of America's wealthiest men at midcentury. But when Time magazine put him on its cover in 1933, it was for playing polo.
"Jock" Whitney, as he was known, was surveying his 600-acre estate on Long Island one day with his groundskeeper. Nonchalantly, he mused aloud how great it would be to have a polo field right there on the grounds. The next day, he went to Europe for vacation. While abroad, he was amazed to find out that the staff had leveled a large tract of his property to create a gorgeous polo field. That's not exactly what Jock had in mind.
But that's what you get for thinking out loud. When the boss sneezes, everybody else gets pneumonia. This is something every boss needs to consider before opening his or her mouth, because the same dynamic occurs all day long in the workplace — to the point where even the boss's praise can create confusion.
For example, I advise my clients to be very conscious of their tendency to grade or rate people on the quality of their suggestions. Bosses do this all the time. If a direct report makes a suggestion, the boss will say, "That's a great idea!" That's nice to hear, of course. We'll go home that night and tell our significant other, "You'll never believe what the boss said about my idea today." But if we hear, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard!" the power of the comment is multiplied. The wound may linger forever.
And when the response falls somewhere in between, that can be the worst. Does it mean we've scored a 4 out of a possible 10, and the boss expects better? Is the boss turning against us? If praise given can be potent and inspiring, then praise withheld can be potent and disorienting.
That's the problem when we openly judge what our colleagues say to us. It can set off a chain of events beyond our control, which defeats the purpose of talking to people in the first place. Perhaps the most outrageous story about a leader's unappreciated power comes from the CEO of a telephone company. He was driving home thinking about work when he passed a solitary phone booth on a quiet residential corner. "That's an odd location for a phone booth," he thought. "I wonder how much money it earns us." The next day, he runs into a midlevel employee in the hallway, someone on the operational level, not a manager. He says, "I'm curious. How much do we make on that phone booth near my house? It's not a big deal. Don't spend a lot of time on it. Just send me a note."
The employee looks it up and starts to write that note. His manager walks by and asks, "What are you doing?"
"Oh, this is for the CEO. He stopped by and wanted to know how much we make on phone booths."
"You can't send him a little note. There's no comparison of this phone booth with other booths in the area."
So the question gets bumped up to the next level, and the next, and you can imagine the result. About two months later, an executive vice president and the original manager walk into the CEO's office with a phone-booth study in a three-ring binder that's as big as a phone book. The CEO looks at it with a blank expression and says, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Most bosses are smart enough to sense the impact of their statements. They know how a harmless suggestion can be taken as an order. That's why they couch their musings in carefully calibrated language intended to signal that they shouldn't be taken too seriously. The trouble is, no matter how much sweetener is sprinkled on the conversation, when the CEO is involved, it's never a fair fight.
The boxing analogy is apt. We're brought up to think of boxing as a fair contest because the fighters weigh the same. Well, if you think of everyone in an organization as having a designated weight class — assistants are flyweights, middle managers are welterweights, and so on — then the CEO outweighs everyone by at least 50 pounds. If he's in the ring, how can that be a fair fight?
When they're asserting their authority, CEOs are not shy about throwing their weight around. It's when they're trying to be democratic and fair that CEOs forget how much they still weigh. If you're the boss, there's no point in pulling your punches. They still carry a lot of wallop. It's much smarter not to punch at all.
So bite your tongue. Sometimes — more often than we know — it's less confusing for the boss to simply say thank you or nothing at all. Because whether you intend it or not, whatever you say has the power to knock folks out.
Marshall Goldsmith is corporate America's preeminent executive coach and founding director of the Alliance for Strategic Leadership.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.