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When the Best Move Is to Do Nothing

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Some of my best career moves have been to do absolutely nothing. I’ve made a lot of progress by taking no action whatsoever. I realize that sounds a bit odd, but let me walk you through my logic.

My observation is that many managers operate with only one gear. They execute aggressively. They push forward. They react swiftly and decisively all the time. They get their sights set on a target and barrel through until it falls over. There is some merit in this approach. It’s better than being passive. Its far better than being apathetic. But is it the optimal approach all the time?

Clearly, I don’t think so, otherwise I wouldn’t have much of a blog to write today. The truth is I used to have only one gear too. I was full throttle forward, in every situation. And it worked a lot of the time. Especially early on. But as I progressed in my career and met more experienced leaders, and faced more complex business situations, I came to learn that you can’t win at the highest levels with only one gear. You run into too many other one-gear people and you start hitting immovable objects, impasses. And you stop making the same progress you once did.

Today I’m going to walk through four scenarios, when I think it pays to do nothing at all. In these situations, the absence of action leads to the optimal result.

Most managers are action oriented. They see a problem and try to solve it. They meet a roadblock and they try to push through it. I believe you need to have more depth in your game than this. You need to know when taking no action is the best action to take.

Here are a handful of scenarios where doing nothing is usually the best approach.

1. Flaming Emails

The first instinct for many managers, when on the receiving end of a flame email or criticism, is to hit back. Many of us hit back twice as hard. We meet aggression with aggression. We stand up to the bully. We can’t stand the thought of losing. And so, we fight. There is certainly a school of thought that advocates for this level of aggression in business, I just haven’t found that it works over the long term.

Early in my career, if I received an A$$H#&E email from someone, I would instantaneously react. I would respond with at least as much aggression as was targeted at me. Usually a lot more. I reacted emotionally. I reacted quickly and without thinking. Even though it was often therapeutic to bite back, and even though I managed to “win” some battles along the way, my reputation in the long term took a hit. I became known as aggressive, immature … volatile even. It became painfully clear to me a few years in, when I got passed over for a leadership role because the executive team didn’t think I was ready yet. And then it happened again.

As I’ve matured in my career, I’ve learned to not react. To do nothing. I have built great self-control. I have learned to act with purpose. If you send me a flaming email, the chances of receiving an angry response back from me is almost zero. I will let it sit. I will let you sit and wait for me to respond. I’ll let you get impatient. I’ll let you wonder if I’ve even received it. I’ll let you contemplate what you’ve done. And as the hours pass and your emotions shift, you’ll start second guessing yourself. You’ll start wondering if you were inappropriate or unfair. You’ll wonder who I may have shared your email with, and what they may be thinking or doing. I’ll let you sit for a long time. And then, in a day or two or more, when your emotions have calmed and you’re questioning your approach, I’ll call you and very calmly address the issue, make my argument and you’ll apologize to me for being a dickhead.

Who is the leader in this scenario?

Who won this battle?

My advice to managers is to press pause every time you’re tempted to bite back at someone for an angry email or call. Just stop and do nothing. Let it simmer. And when you finally act, do so with purpose and poise. I’m not advocating that you roll over every time someone attacks you – far from it. I’m advocating to act strategically. It will do wonders for your reputation and relationships.

2. Low Priority Work

This is a very different example from the first one, but no less important. Many of us fall victim to the constant onslaught of emails, meetings, calls, minor issues. If you’re not careful, taking action on these can stagnate real progress. In my job, I could easily burn 40 hours a week responding to emails, attending second tier meetings, and answering the phone. I could spend 40 hours a week and make zero progress. I see other managers do this all the time. They just don’t seem to have enough hours in the week. They just can’t seem to move the ball forward on key initiatives.

This is another scenario where the optimal move, in my opinion, is to do nothing. I never answer emails as they come in. I only answer the phone if I know the caller and I have reason to believe the issue is a priority. I decline all non-essential meetings. I almost never schedule meetings for more than 30 minutes even when they are essential. My default response to incoming activity is to do nothing. To let it sit and simmer while I make progress on my big wins.

My observation is that many managers overvalue responsiveness as a management virtue. They respond and respond and respond and at the end of the year, have nothing to show for their work. And when they are being considered for a promotion or expansion, they struggle to show enough progress to support their case.

My advice to managers: When you see the emails flooding your inbox and the calls coming in and meetings piling up – do nothing. Focus on your wins, make progress.

3. Losing Small to Win Big

Managers need to keep their eyes on the prize. You need to know what your big goals are at all times. The decisions you make, on what to give attention and energy to, must be directed by your target wins. One of the biggest mistakes I see managers make is winning small only to lose big. This is true in relationships as well as projects and programs.

To be successful in the long game, you need to build a network of strong relationships. And those strong relationships can’t only be with people you like. The most successful leaders have productive relationships with people they don’t particularly care for. The only way this is possible is if you can keep from getting sucked into petty conflicts that turn into feuds and impasses. You might be surprised at how often I will intentionally lose an argument. You might be surprised at how often I’ll let something slide by that upsets me, that I know is wrong.

I lose small all the time. Some people will scratch their heads and wonder if I’ve gone soft or if I’m not paying attention. That’s not what’s happening. I choose to lose small in order to win big. I choose to accumulate goodwill by sacrificing for other leaders, so when something big comes up, I can cash in my chips.

My advice to managers is to look for more opportunities to lose small so you can win big later. Look for opportunities to turn the other cheek, to do nothing. My experience tells me this approach strengthens relationships, accumulates capital in your network, and strengthens your position when you ultimately do fight for an issue.

Related: How You Manage Your “OK” Performers Could Be Your Competitive Edge

4. Unclear Risk vs. Reward

The last scenario I should mention is when you’re unable to approximate the risk/reward for a decision with a reasonable degree of confidence. This is a tricky one and should not be mistaken for tacit permission to punt every tricky call you need to make. The best managers need to be able to act with imperfect information – that is not up for debate. But even without perfect information, you should be able to assess the risk/reward dynamics of a situation before acting.

Is there a big win for me if I do this?

How big is the downside if I mess this up?

If this goes bad, am I comfortable with my decision based on the information I have?

My advice to managers is that if you can’t answer these simple risk/reward questions, it’s usually a good idea to do nothing. Wait. Pass. Take a breath. Like in investing, sometimes the smartest moves are the investments you didn’t make.

Sometimes it pays to take no action at all. This doesn’t come naturally to most managers. We are bred to execute with aggression. Most of us have realized some measure of success by being action-oriented. To do nothing, seems weak, indecisive. Don’t let yourself fall into this line of thinking. Your goal is to make the optimal move in every business scenario you encounter. And many times, in my experience, the optimal move is no movement at all. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below.

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