Hollow Statements

Joe —  Fri 8-Jan-10 — 5 Comments
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Buck Stops HereYesterday I was listening to a senior politician state the “buck stops here”. What exactly does that mean? No, I know what the phrase means but what does it really mean? What happens as the result of the buck stopping there?If I were to say that I would intend that to mean a couple of things.

  1. I will not pass the blame onto anyone else.
  2. I accept and admit that I had a contribution to the failure.
  3. I will take the consequences of the failure.

However a short while later he went on to implicate all of the other groups that had failed their assignments. This seems to be at odds with the first statement. He never indicated where he had failed, which seems to violate the second statement. Finally, I have not heard what consequences he absorbed as a result of this failure. He was not censured by his peers, he was not punished nor did he lose something of personal value. Seems like a rather hollow statement to me.

But that statement, like many others, is almost always hollow unless it is followed by immediate, demonstrable actions. Statements like “I take full responsibility” often mean as much as “let’s do lunch sometime”. Think about it, have you ever had someone say “We need to do lunch sometime” and then have them follow your nod of agreement by pulling out their calendar and saying “How about next Thursday at 11:45?” I have – and it made all the difference in the world.

The source of “hollowness” can usually be attributed to a small number of intentions.

  1. Speaker was sincere but failed to execute.
  2. Speaker was ignorant and had no idea what the statement meant to others.
  3. Speaker was insincere and tried to make something go away.
  4. Speaker was insincere and wanted to make someone better.

If you are that speaker and your intentions were sincere, then the best thing to do is to not make the statement until you are ready to act on its promise. If it is a promise that holds future actions, put something in place that ensures you will follow through. Few things break down trust more than unfulfilled promises.

If you were ignorant and simply lacked the knowledge of what your statement truly meant then I suggest paying careful attention to the power of your words. Ask others to point out to you when you make a hollow statement. Accountability partners are a great way to improve.

If your intentions were insincere, then damn you.

Today’s Questions
What words or phrases have you heard that are hollow? Did you immediately know they were hollow when spoken?

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Joe

Posts

  • http://user-assistance.blogspot.com/ Michael Hughes

    Action Science offers an additional way of framing these types of situations by talking about the gap between a person’s “espoused beliefs” and that person’s “theories in use.” Espoused beliefs are essentially scripts we have learned as being the right thing to say. The environment rewards us for saying them. Theories in use are what we actually do and are often driven by what proves to work in the real world, i.e., the environment rewards us for doing them. Interestingly, most people are unaware of the gaps between their espoused beliefs and their theories in use. So I think it is more complex in many situations than just insincerity and ignorance. Society is a complex environment that has separate reward systems for talk and action. When was the last time a politician got elected by saying he or she would fix the budget by reducing government services and raising taxes?

    • Joe

      Well said, Mike. Anything that involves people, motivation and change management is inherently complex and fun to watch.

      The difficulty for me is that the more complex something is the less likely I am to try and do something about it. I like to try and simplify things to a point where I can work with it even if the model is incomplete.

  • http://www.andrewfuqua.com Andrew Fuqua

    Earlier this afternoon, the phone rings…

    me: “Hello, this is Andrew.”

    phone: “Hey Andrew, this is Terrell.”

    me: “Hey Terrell. How are you?” (sincere)

    phone: “Good thanks. Are you busy?”

    me: “Nope. What’s up?” (hollow)

    phone: “Good. Want to come to the church to help pull a couple hundred feed of cat-5?”

    me: “Nope.” (sincere)

    • http://www.andrewfuqua.com Andrew Fuqua

      So, here’s the commentary: I knew it was hollow when I said I wasn’t busy, but I wanted Terrell to feel comfortable calling me. What I really meant and what I should have said was “I”m up to my elbows repairing the kitchen sink right now but I’d love to take a break from that and talk to you for a few minutes.” But that’s just so many words. I was being lazy and not trying hard enough or not caring enough to communicate more fully. All bad qualities. Qualities that gets me volunteered to spend a day pulling cable.

      • Joe

        Great example. I love the karma like result.