Tony Samson-125


SIGNALING is a way of communicating indirectly and without words. One example behavioral economists, like Richard Thaler, give is the premium hiring of MBA graduates from prestigious (hard to enter, harder to graduate from) business schools. The interest is not in the mastery of subjects learned like the theory of opportunity cost and just-in-time inventory benefits. It’s the seriousness of purpose, analytical mastery, and hard work in completing the course as the values being signaled as corporate virtues to be acquired.

Communication can be indirect. What is not said can be more important than what is expressly pronounced. For instance, it is possible to show support for a move by not looking too dejected at its rejection, stinging though its wording is. Invoking respect for the decision of the leader and shrugging off the sense of isolation is a way of retreating from a public position expressed. Yes, only one voice, though squeaky, should be heeded on this matter of who owns what islands.

It’s not just a matter of action speaking louder than words. Sometimes inaction can even be more eloquent. Not doing anything in the face of some blatant infractions signals that it’s right to continue doing what is not being disallowed. Even calls for action are blithely ignored, or dismissed as untimely.

Reading between the lines and deciphering the meaning of blank spaces separating words require a subtle reading of signals. The pretense of seeming to contradict the boss in an independent move but actually furthering his known but hidden agenda is a delicate one.

When a CEO receives a proposal, say involving a close relative in a transaction, he will publicly instruct his subordinate in charge of the process to avoid giving special favors and objectivity decide on the strict merits of the case. (Why was he even called by the CEO for this minor transaction?) The signal is enough for the faithful subordinate to connect the dots. He is supposed to figure out that the merits of the case. The decision to favor the relative is packaged as an independent judgment in spite of the boss’s orders to apply strict standards. He doesn’t even follow up on the decision.

CEOs, no matter how they loudly profess welcoming criticism (my door is always open to pests), independent thinking, and principled dissent may privately admit to a close circle of intimates (including the one serving coffee) that the personality with these attributes pisses him off. (He raises my blood pressure, even with my face mask on.) Such a signal reaches the designated hit-man who proceeds to implement the un-ordered but devoutly wished outcome. Soon, the fall of the PITA (pain-in-the-ass) is accepted sadly by the boss — too bad we are now deprived of such independent thinking. Life goes on. Can you call my favorite hit man for coffee?

Of course, dissatisfaction with a high-profile critic does not need to be so coy. In our in-your-face type of leadership, it is clear who are in the outs. There is little subtlety in understanding the difference between heroes and villains in the political drama we witness daily. A very old man dusted off from the closet to be the spokesperson for a favored invader signals no change in the policy of appeasement and extension of guest privileges. This wizened veteran can still string sentences together to make accommodation and placation (at this time) seem almost reasonable. Even the client cannot but signal a beatific contentment on his choice of a debate proxy.

Still, it is the fate of overeager subordinates who on their own implement an unexpressed order to deal with the consequences. In case their action turns sour, the next victim could be you-know-who. (What was he thinking?)

What refuge is there for the subordinate who goes against the publicly expressed wishes of his boss? The defense that one has unfortunately misread the indirect messages can only lead to the fate of a bumbler who can’t keep his mouth shut.

Carrying out orders literally has its own burden. Maybe, the new hire does not really understand the boss. He’s too eager to please. And unfortunately, there is no refuge in citing e-mails and text messages. Usually, there’s another meeting where the real directions are discussed and unrecorded. The signal does not reach everyone… specially those outside the room.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda