Seeing Through the Smoke

Recognize excuses and form close relationships to get the truth

by Joseph D. Conklin

Asking this question risks giving away my age, but it’s for a higher cause: When you hear the phrase "smoke gets in your eyes," what is the first thing that comes to mind? If it’s not the Platters, the doo-wop group, and if you aspire to reach the management ranks, you are probably in the intended age range for this article.

A department manager where I once worked was a fan of a prominent motivational speaker and sales trainer. He loaned me a tape of one of his seminars on success. One point I remember went something like this: "One phrase that sabotages goals is, ‘I’ll try.’ Just say, ‘I’ll do it’ or ‘I won’t.’ When I deal with a vendor, I never accept, ‘I’ll try to have it ready by then.’ I always insist on a guarantee."

I determined the point was true and false. The phrase is close to the truth if I’m ordering paper clips but not so close if I’m in charge of the team sending the first manned flight to Mars.

Through the years, I have observed more and more instances in which people hedge and qualify at work. Sometimes, the reasons given were unique. More frequently, however, I noticed the same set of phrases being recycled. Besides the ever reliable "I’ll try," there was also:

  • "I can do it if this or that happens."
  • "Maybe I can do it."
  • "I need to think about it."
  • "I need more information."
  • "I’ll get back to you."
  • "I don’t have enough time/money/people."

Anyone in management must hear these phrases a lot.  Sometimes, they are valid. Sometimes, they are not. Occasionally, out of fear, laziness or the sheer thrill of pulling a fast one, people try to blow smoke. How do managers keep the smoke out of their eyes?

This was not something for which I could find simple, hard-and-fast rules. A strategy I like to use in cases such as this is talking to people who have experienced this type of situation to understand how they handled it. So, I recently sat down with some old friends and coworkers who agreed to share their stories.

Carl is a hospital administrator in a remote, isolated part of his state. Paul is a retired statistician who analyzed data from industry surveys during his career. Rob is a senior executive with a federal government agency.

With such a varied set of backgrounds, I wondered if any common themes would emerge.

Carl’s story

"After 40 years in this business, I’ve heard phrases such as this more times than I can count. You have to be able to recognize the phrases," Carl said.

"I’ve been administrator here for 13 years, and when I was hired, bankruptcy was on the horizon. Like a lot of other hospitals in small, isolated communities, we are on the low end of the receiving line when it comes to reimbursement from the state. The only way to survive is to run a network of satellite clinics, which helps patients by bringing services closer to where they live. The convenience spurs increased business that lets us qualify for more money from the state.

"If you think running a hospital is interesting, managing a hospital and 20-plus clinics is exhilarating. On a good day, I have enough time to breathe. So, when the lab director wants money for a new piece of equipment, for instance, do I just say no? If that happens a few times, he might not want to offer much input or suggestions on anything.

"I can’t afford that, but I can’t always take the time to explain why we can’t do this or that right now. If I say, ‘I’ll think about it,’ or ‘I’ll get back to you,’ I keep the door open, and he is less likely to feel neglected. The price, of course, is I have to constantly redouble my efforts to find grants and new money so that, at least once in a while, I can say yes.

"I generally take a dim view of ‘I’ll try.’ I buy it when the wet-behind-the-ears billing clerk on his first job out of school says, ‘I’ll try to get the bills mailed by Friday.’ But, the experienced accounting department manager who keeps delaying me with, ‘I’ll try to complete the appendix to the finance report’—something he knows is due every year at the same time—better not ask for a raise anytime soon.

"I’ve heard ‘Maybe I can do that’ a lot lately. There are many needs the hospital by itself cannot support, even with all the clinics.

"A good example is an assisted living facility. We don’t have a single one in a three-county area with a concentrated elderly population. For the past several years, I’ve worked with a committee of representatives from 13 area agencies to build one. Nobody in this group is taking orders from me.

"We debate a lot of ideas— some are good, while others aren’t. If I phrase my ideas as suggestions, such as ‘Maybe we should consider this,’ they’re more likely to be heard. Something must be working, though, because after three years of work, we are about to start designing the facility."

Paul’s feedback

"I’ve heard my share of ‘I’ll get back to you’ replies. If a new issue is involved, I go along with it as long the follow-up is concrete and short in coming. If the issue is recurring or long standing, then I’m not likely to buy it.

"In my experience, conditioning performance—the strategy of ‘If this or that happens’—is generally valid. Before retiring, I was in the data delivery business. We not only relied on companies to respond to the surveys we sent, but we also relied on other parts of the organization to forward information collected through their surveys.

"I remember our flagship annual publication. It would have been great if we could have promised the same delivery date every year. But it was not going to happen because we had to wait for our sister division to send over its share of the data. We could have asked for it sooner, but we could not have demanded it.

"There are three overlapping goals in data collection and delivery operations: high accuracy, high timeliness and low cost. They are very difficult to optimize all at once. After you pick any two of the three, what you can do for the third is limited. This creates a fertile field for excuses.

"A policy of ‘no surprises’—keeping management informed of obstacles—goes a long way toward being credible when you have to fall back on phrases such as ‘Maybe’ or ‘There is not enough money.’" 

Rob’s account

"The phrase ‘I need more information’ has a deep, special—but unpleasant—meaning for me. Early in my career, I worked for a boss who said the phrase so often, it was a stock saying after a while. It was shorthand for ‘I’m afraid of making a mistake," ‘I don’t trust you,’ or ‘I am uncomfortable making decisions.’

"He was a micromanager and, frankly, difficult to work with. Sometimes, he used ‘I’ll get back to you’ as a ploy to keep control or reserve the plum projects for himself. This attitude slowed progress. Additionally, I frequently felt second guessed. I couldn’t, however, blame the manager completely.

"The larger organization was risk-averse and tended to punish failure. My boss was dependent on the senior executives for his sense of professional worth. In a sense, he passed on what he received.

"Eventually, he left, and I retained some enduring lessons in working with people. I truly value timely answers and being responsive to customers. I grew more comfortable confronting future bosses after paying the price for not doing so with this one. I do regret not having more chances to make decisions or to experience a positive role model for people skills.

"In sum, the experience made me more sensitive to excuses. Sometimes, though, the phrases are the truth. Recently, one of my direct reports inquired about funds for a conference. I had to use the ‘not enough money’ phrase for real. We were already 50% over for the year on travel."

Forging relationships

As I considered the insights of these three experienced managers, the importance of relationships really hit home. Carl, Paul and Rob agreed that, in general, the longer and better they know a person, the better they can tell the truth from the smoke.

Knowing your people is essential. Instead of no-excuses management, I resolved to adopt a know-excuses management philosophy. I encourage the same for you in pursuit of a smoke-free management career.

Joseph D. Conklin is a mathematical statistician at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He earned a master’s degree in statistics from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Conklin is a senior member of ASQ and an ASQ-certified quality manager, engineer, auditor and reliability engineer.

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