The Dark Art of Ghosting in Business

I first became aware of “ghosting” as a concept over a decade ago, when a young friend informed me she had been “Caspered” by a boyfriend. I had to ask her to explain.

In case you’re as clueless today as I was at the time, here’s the Urban Dictionary’s definition. Key line:

  • The act of suddenly ceasing all communication with someone the subject is dating, but no longer wishes to date. This is done in hopes that the ghostee will just “get the hint” and leave the subject alone, as opposed to the subject simply telling them he/she is no longer interested

Interestingly, even as woke a place as the Urban Dictionary includes a near-moral judgment about the phenomenon: it is “closely related to the subject’s maturity…[and] proves the subject is thinking more of themselves than the ghostee.” A rather obvious nod to the concept of Self-Orientation, the denominator in the Trust Equation.

Never mind the ethical angle; I don’t want to come off as just some moralizer (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I want to state the case for what a stupid, short-term, self-harming phenomenon it is.

Business Ghosts

First of all, ghosting has evolved beyond the dating world. Some business examples might include:

  • Firms ghosting interview candidates somewhere past the beginning of the recruiting process
  • (Interview candidates ghosting the recruiting firm in the same situation)
  • Contractors ghosting vendors who’ve responded to an RFP process (and vice versa)

Basically, any business situation in which an (even mildly) uncomfortable situation is dealt with by simply opting out of normal civil conversation.

Some more perspective:

  • A 2019 Robert Half study shows that 28% of respondents had backed out of a job after accepting an offer.
  • A 2019 Staffing Industry Analysts survey showed that over 40% of respondents say ghosting a potential employer is acceptable. 35% say it’s “very unreasonable” for a company to ghost a potential employee, but only 21% think it’s “very unreasonable” for the potential employee to ghost the potential employer.
  • A friend with a small IT consulting firm who depends on subcontractors told me of recently being ghosted by a sub after having gotten verbal confirmation of commitment to work on a time-critical job.

There is a line of argument that says millennials and Gen Z are to blame. Weaned on social media and anchored to their cellphone screens, the argument goes, we are raising a generation of socially incompetents. (For an excellent take on the issues facing this age cohort, I recommend Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s most recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure).

However, I’m not going to go there regarding ghosting, because I don’t want to let the rest of us off the hook. As the Urban Dictionary notes, it’s an issue of maturity: and just because it’s an age thing doesn’t mean it’s a generational thing. It’s something that hopefully we grow out of as we get older.

So, let’s look at it from the point of view of the ghoster, and the ghostee.

When It’s OK to Ghost

This one’s easy.

Basically, never.

Sure, you can come up with some convoluted morally-ambiguous scenarios in which non-involvement or silence is somehow the lesser of two evils. But let’s get real: it’s simply not OK to ghost people in the midst of normal commercial-human behavior.

Beyond the dictates of normal social behavior, there are plenty of good reasons. Your reputation will suffer, as will that of your firm. You will create unnecessary resentments. You will annoy at best and hurt at worst other people. You burn bridges. You set a bad example. You create bad habits.

Really, that should be enough. Just Don’t Do That.

What to Do When You’re Ghosted

Basically, you’ve got four choices; and only one of them is acceptable.

  • Keep hounding them. Classic can-kicking down the road. Postponement is not solution.
  • Reach out positively to give them another chance. Definitely worth one try. Not worth two, because it’s likely to just drive the offender deeper into their behavior. Plus, life is short.
  • Publicly shame them. Tempting, but to all the wrong parts of your psyche. Resentment is like taking poising and waiting for the other person to die. Don’t indulge in it.
  • Resolve never to do business with them again, and move on. They’ve shown you their true colors; time to believe them, and move on.

So, what can you do if you’re ghosted? Honestly – nothing. Find some learning in it, and move on.

How to Prevent Being Ghosted In the Future

This may be the only situation worth talking about.

You can do a few things reduce the chances of it happening again.

  • For one, maximize emotional bandwidth at the outset. If you can’t meet personally, then do video calls rather than audio. If you can’t do video calls, then do audio calls rather than email. If you can’t do phone calls, then write lengthy emails rather than short ones. The more personal connection you establish up front, the less people are likely to ghost you.
  • For another, take a small risk on them at the outset. The logic here is that people tend to reciprocate. If you trust them, they’re more likely to be trustworthy with you. That might mean a small upfront payment; or a sharing of some intellectual property; or a sharing of information about your own business. Your choice: the point is to take a risk, so they’ll take a risk on you.
  • Share something about yourself that is personal early on. Again, people tend to reciprocate, and they’re likely to respond similarly. People are more likely to come to you with conflicts if you’ve had some level of interpersonal sharing than if they think they “really don’t know you anyway, so what the heck.”

You’ll notice these are all small ways of increasing trust up front. Establishing trust up front is the best inoculation against the violation of trust later by someone who’s vulnerable to the immature and destructive act of ghosting.

And, not that it’s your job, but doing so will help add to the emotional maturity of the contractor, and make things a little better in the world at large. Not a bad deal: reduce your risk, and help fix a tiny part of the world at the same time.  Be an ambassador of trust.

 

 

 

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For more on this subject read our blog post:

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A manager at a communications firm writes in and asks “How to you manage qualified sales leads that seem very interested but then go silent? Do you keep reaching out?  Do you try another approach?”

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A solo consultant asks , “How do I ask a long-standing client, whom I already bill a lot monthly, for a rate increase?”

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Five Short Phrases to Build Relationships: Part 2 of 5

This is the second in a series of five posts on short (seven words or less) powerful phrases. Each phrase distills the essence of a key part of approaching trust-based relationships in business.

Why focus on short phrases like this? Because the concise expression of several emotionally powerful concepts packs a punch. Such phrases feel profound. They catch the listener’s attention. They force the listener to reflect. They are short enough to remember every word, and therefore to resonate in the mind of the listener.

Today’s Phrase: (Four words) 

            “At the risk of…”

What then follows is a short list of your fears about what will happen if you say what you are about to say.  (And usually your fears are shared by the others in the conversation).

When to Use It

  • A key technique for calling out the “elephant in the room,” the thing that everyone is thinking about but no one feels comfortable saying
  • As a way of announcing an emotionally risky statement, thereby defusing the risk.

Examples

  • “At the risk of revealing my complete ignorance about this organization – what does the acronym QRP stand for in this paper?”
  • “At the risk of delving way too deep into personal relationship issues – it feels to me like there’s a bit of a breakdown in communications between you and Susan…”
  • “At the risk of grossly misreading your reaction, Susan, you seemed a little startled by that last part of the conversation?”

Why It Works.

These four little words pack an emotional punch well beyond their weight. They work because of the relationship between Transparency, Vulnerability, and Risk-taking, and because of the power of Ironic Over-statement.

Transparency. The opposite of transparency is opacity. When interactions are opaque, there is room for all parties to imagine all manner of bad motives, monsters lurking under the bed. When someone chooses to be transparent – to reveal their true motives, to shine a light on the ‘monsters’ – we relax. We feel more intimacy with that person, and our mistrust fades away. By speaking of the ‘elephant in the room,’ we deprive the elephant of its emotional power over us.

Vulnerability. By choosing to be the first to challenge the ‘rule’ about not speaking of the elephant, you are overtly taking a risk – the risk that every fear you listed may in fact be true.

      • But paradoxically, stating those very fears out loud in the form of a caveat (“at the risk of…”) robs them of their power – you have already acknowledged out loud the worst of your fears.
      • Having done so, the worst that others can say is, “Well, yes, that does reveal ignorance / get too personal / misread me.” In which case you simply say, “OK, got it, won’t make that mistake again.” You have converted an elephant into a mere checked-as-completed task.

Risk-taking. All trust starts with someone taking the risk. If you always wait for the other person to take the first risk, you are passively defaulting your power (the analogue in sales is “aggressively waiting for the phone to ring”). These four words not only announce your intent to take the first risk, but mitigate the risk you are taking (see the bullet points in ‘vulnerability’ comments above).

Ironic Over-statement. Note the adjectives and adverbs in the examples above: complete ignorance, way too deep, grossly misreading. We all know the lesson of Watergate: the cover-up is always worse than the crime.

By ironically over-stating our fears, we are immunizing ourselves against the Watergate error. No one can mistake your intent for a flimsy excuse, a lame apology, or an almost-but-not-quite admission. It evokes a response of, “All right, OK, we got it, let’s move along” – which is precisely what you want.

 

Next Blogpost:  Short Phrase #3 of 5: “Help me Understand…”

 

 

 

Five Short Phrases to Build Relationships: Part 1 of 5

 

This is the first in a series of five posts on short (seven words or less) powerful phrases. Each phrase distills the essence of a key part of approaching trust-based relationships in business.

Why focus on short phrases like this? Because the concise expression of several emotionally powerful concepts packs a punch. Such phrases feel profound. They catch the listener’s attention. They force the listener to reflect. They are short enough to remember every word, and thus to resonate in the mind of the listener.

Today’s Phrase: (Seven words) 

“I could be wrong about this, but…”

What then follows is an observation, hypothesis, or point of view, that you wish to put forward to your client.

When to Use It

  • When you are attempting to distill key elements of a discussion and move toward framing an issue
  • As a way to establish thought leadership or credentials in a pitch or sales presentation
  • As a way to present an alternative point of view in a conversation.

Examples

  • “I could be wrong about this, but in my several forays into the retail industry, the merchandising function has generally had a pretty powerful voice…”
  • “I could be wrong about this, but my sense is that you may be attributing more energy on this issue coming from Bob than he might have – I wonder if he really cares that much?”
  • “I could be wrong about this, but it strikes me from what you’ve said that the downside risk sounds pretty small compared to the upside benefit…”

Why It Works

This little phraselet triggers four key concepts behind trust-based interactions: Low Self-orientation, Respect, Reciprocity, and Risk.

Low Self-orientation. By explicitly acknowledging up front your possible fallibility, you show that you are willing to subordinate your ego for the greater good of the team (paradoxically demonstrating that you are comfortable enough in your own skin to withstand being perceived as wrong).

Respect. By overtly confessing that you might not be right, you are deferring to the client as a possible arbiter of the real truth. It invites a correction if one exists. At the same time, if the client doesn’t have the right answer, it lets them off the hook, allowing them to save face – because at worst, they are your equal in ignorance.

Reciprocity. Reciprocity is a fundamental dynamic of human relationships, forming the template for such interactions as etiquette, influence, and trust. If you do X first, I will do the same in return. If you listen to me, I will listen to you; if you treat me well, I will treat you well; if you humble yourself to me, I will humble myself to you.

    • In this case, you are offering a gift of sorts – a gift of your insight, presented with humility. The natural reciprocative response is, bare minimum, to consider your gift; and often to, in return, engage in dialogue about the issue you have raised.
    • Note that in this context, it is critical that you really might be wrong, and you know it; the whole thing doesn’t work if you flat-out believe you couldn’t possibly be wrong (in which case you’re being hypocritical), or if there’s really no risk at all to your gift.

Risk. At nearly every point in nearly every relationship, each party fears taking a small risk to go deeper. Short term loss always overwhelms long-term gain in our emotional short-sightedness. But “I could be wrong, but…” says to the other party, “It’s OK – I’ll take the first risk. I’ll test the water, I’ll risk the humiliation – I’ll put myself forward to lessen the risk to you.” And, as per the reciprocity point above, this willingness to take the first risk results – paradoxically – in greater willingness of the other person to join you.

Next Blogpost:  Short Phrase #2 of 5: “At the risk of…”

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