I’ve mentioned before that I used to work for a boss who had me issue the same memo every year about tacit approval. The memo was designed to remind everyone of their responsibilities as a manager and leader as well as the basic principles of business.
I was reminded of tacit approval recently and dug out the memo. Believe it or not, some ten plus years later…I still have it. Not only does it apply to our roles at work, but in other places like our volunteer and civic roles. Here are a few key takeaways I see every time I 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 existing conditions are 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 that it’s okay to wear unprofessional clothing. Other employees will see this and, before long, the office has turned into a Pitbull concert. (No offense to Pitbull fans. I like his music too, but we probably don’t want the office to look like that.)
Back to the story. 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:
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 even a customer. The assumption that someone else will handle it is misconceived. Meanwhile, the employee has the silent approval from a member of the leadership team.
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 that the manager needs to be punctual as well. The hypocrisy of enforcing one standard while demonstrating another will cause resentment and more problems.
Tacit approval takes many forms and arises for a variety of reasons. It can often result from fear of conflict or rejection, lethargy, or misguided intentions. All that really needs to be done to eliminate tacit approval is to recognize the reasons that tempt us to overlook a situation that we know needs attention.
Leaders must become comfortable speaking up in every case that warrants it, despite 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.1