Leadership and Tacit Approval

by Sharlyn Lauby on March 28, 2012

A couple years ago, I wrote a post about tacit approval. I used to work for a boss who had me issue the same memo every year about the subject. The memo was designed to remind everyone of their responsibilities as a manager as well as the basic principles of business.

leadership, leaders, managers, management, approval, tacit, tacit approvalI was reminded of tacit approval the other day and dug out the memo. Believe it or not, some ten plus years later…I still have it.  Here are a few key takeaways I see every time I take the memo out and read it:

The word tacit means “expressed without words or speech; implied or indicated but not actually expressed.”  It represents silent consent and acceptance.  In our workplaces, tacit approval is given whenever a manager fails to speak out about existing conditions.  Tacit approval leads everyone to assume that the status quo is acceptable, will be tolerated and allowed to continue.

Not only does tacit approval work against improving performance, it makes it unlikely that standards will be met.  Let’s use a simple example, like when a supervisor doesn’t say anything about an employee who’s wearing something more suited for clubbing. What’s going to motivate the employee to wear the proper attire in the future?  The supervisor’s silence implies it’s okay to wear unprofessional clothing.  Other employees will see this and, before long, the office has turned into The Viper Room.  Trying to re-institute the policy at this point requires a major retraining effort not to mention an internal public relations campaign.  To avoid this situation, the supervisor should be vocal, but not in an overbearing, sarcastic or caustic way.  A timely comment can bring general awareness and serves to remind everyone of the policy.

Some other common examples of tacit approval in the workplace include:

Setting a double standard.  Let’s say an employee doesn’t arrive at work on time.  The employee must be coached on the need to be punctual.  Failure to say something would be silent approval of tardiness.  But this also means the manager needs to be punctual as well.  The hypocrisy of enforcing one standard while demonstrating another will cause resentment and more problems.

Passing the buck.  Someone in another department has an inappropriate screen saver on their computer.  Because this employee is in another department, the manager figures it’s not their responsibility and doesn’t address the issue.  Even though they realize the screen saver could offend a co-worker or customer.  The assumption that someone else will handle it is misconceived.  Meanwhile, the employee has the silent approval from a member of the management team.

Tacit approval takes many forms and arises for a variety of reasons.  It can often result from fear of conflict or rejection, laziness, or misguided intentions.  All that really needs to be done to eliminate tacit approval is to recognize the reasons tempting us to overlook a situation that we know needs attention.

We must become comfortable speaking up in every case that warrants it, in spite of our apprehensions.  Before long, the reasons for remaining silent will cease to exist.  Our feelings about speaking up to correct something that’s wrong becomes less important to us.  It becomes about something being wrong that shouldn’t be.

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Lesley March 29, 2012 at 4:31 pm

I thought this blog was very informative. As a management major, it is important to remember not to take a tacit approach in the workplace. Avoiding and ignoring uncomfortable situations is not the best approach if you want to accomplish something and have efficient employees. This blog was a great reminder that talking about difficult situations is imperative as a manager.

Wally Bock April 1, 2012 at 9:45 am

Now, this is a topic we don’t discuss nearly enough. I think your old boss had it right, sending a reminder out every year. As I tell everyone who goes through my programs, “That which you allow, you condone.”

Frances Mote April 1, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Sharlyn,
This is right on the money – the repercussions can be so damaging to a company’s culture. Thank you,
Frances

Sharlyn Lauby April 2, 2012 at 11:56 am

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I didn’t realize at the time how wise my old boss was…I thought issuing the same memo year after year was a waste. But it’s an important message that bears repeating.

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