Leaving People In A State Of Suspense

Fatima Fokina

The corporate computer system gets hacked. Twenty thousand people around the world get thrown out of the network. Those 20,000 people sit at their desks, cursing their computers and their information technology departments:  “Why can’t those idiots ever make anything work?”

What’s the proper response from the IT department?

  1. Say nothing to the 20,000 employees, but work conscientiously to fix the hack.
  2. Send everyone a text message: “The system has been hacked. There’s no problem with your personal computer. You will be unable to access the system until we fix the problem. We’re working on this issue, and we’ll let you know when the system is fixed.”

The difference is between leaving 20,000 people wasting hours of their time trying to get back into the network, while cursing your IT department and the horse it rode it on, and everyone understanding the situation and staying calm while the IT department tries to fix the problem.

You ask your accountant to get an extension to file your income tax returns. The date for requesting the extension approaches. You send reminder emails; the accountant says nothing. The date for filing the extension passes; the accountant says nothing. Two weeks later, in response to your fourth email, the accountant says: “Oh, yes. We filed your request for an extension on the day it was due.”

That solves the problem of getting the extension. But it doesn’t solve the problem of having hired a moron for an accountant.

Don’t leave people in suspense!

If you’re supposed to be doing something, tell people that you’re doing it, so your audience doesn’t curse you and assume the worst.

You’re an associate at a law firm. The brief is due on Friday. The partner asks for a draft by Monday. You don’t have the draft ready. What’s the right thing to do?

  1. Let your Monday deadline come and go, without saying a word to the partner.  You’ll deliver the draft soon enough.
  2. Send a note to the partner on Monday afternoon: “I’m terribly sorry. Another emergency project interfered with my drafting of your brief. I’ll deliver the brief to you at the start of business on Tuesday.”

The first option leaves the partner cursing you: “Most associates are irresponsible. Therefore, this particular associate is irresponsible. The associate probably hasn’t even started writing the brief, and it’s due on Friday. Why am I doomed to work with these idiots?”

The second option keeps people calm: “I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the brief at the assigned time. But this associate, unlike all of the other associates at this place, is working on the brief, keeping me informed, and may actually get me the brief on Tuesday morning. That’s a reasonable alternative to not delivering the brief at the assigned time.”

Why leave people in suspense?

When something is due at a certain time, deliver the work product at the assigned time. If you can’t, then explain why the work product has been delayed.

Leaving people in suspense is just stupid: The person who’s expecting the work product hasn’t forgotten about it. That person is cursing you until the work product arrives. Why allow that to happen? Don’t leave people in suspense: Alert them to the problem, and tell them when it will be fixed.

That’s a better (and far less common) solution.  Trust me.


Mark Herrmann spent 17 years as a partner at a leading international law firm and is now deputy general counsel at a large international company. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Drug and Device Product Liability Litigation Strategy (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at [email protected].

https://abovethelaw.com/2022/03/leaving-people-in-a-state-of-suspense/

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