In defence of ‘but’

Jon Weedon doesn’t like it when people say “but”.

I can’t think of a single word in the English language that pisses me off more than the word “but”.

There’s no other word quite like it for sucking the positivity out of a room. No other word comes close to plucking defeat from the jaws of victory.

Just when you think you’ve cracked it, out pops the ‘b’ word and everything unravels. I’d love to help you but… I think it’s a cracking idea but… It’s one of the best meals I’ve ever had but…

I know what he means…but….

There are parallels between this and the arguments about regulation. Nobody likes being told they shouldn’t or can’t do stuff but sometimes it is necessary. Regulators and butsayers have a role to play – they stop us from doing really stupid and dangerous things.

The banks, for example, could have done with a lot more people saying “but” during the years leading up to 2008. Those that did say “but” pissed their bosses off in the way that butsayers irritate Jon. As one chief executive put it, “We have to dance until the music stops,” and anyone who said otherwise was a party pooper. The butsayers who suggested people stop dancing, or even just slow down a bit, were bullied, pushed aside or sacked.

It was Merrill Lynch’s chief butsayer, the sidelined head of risk, John Briet, who was left to tell the CEO that the company was bust, in what reads like the final scene of a stage tragedy.

It was a similar story at Terminal 5. The change programme, it seems, was all about getting the staff into that upbeat positive mindset. You had to be ‘up for it’. No room for butsayers – even if the butsayers were pointing out that many of the systems in the shiny new terminal wouldn’t work.

I’m all for a bit of appreciative inquiry and a focus on benefits rather than snags but the tyranny of positivity can sometimes cause problems to be missed. I remember one change programme where a middle-aged middle manager kept bringing up the same problem in meeting after meeting. She had a reputation for being a whinger and so her comments were ignored. For some reason, which I still can’t explain, I decided to talk to her after one meeting and find out what she was banging on about. In doing so, I discovered that one of the decisions the programme management team (which included me) had made was potentially disastrous. Without her butsaying we’d have been in trouble.

The trouble with creating excitement around change in an organisation is that sometimes people can get carried away. In the rah-rah atmosphere, butsayers are drowned out. Positivity becomes the new religion and those who don’t follow it are burnt as witches.

Butsayers, then, are a bit like regulators. They pour cold water on things, take the wind out of your sails and can be a complete pain in the arse. (How many metaphors can I cram into one sentence?) They have their function, though, and if you dismiss them too readily, the consequences can be dire.

Business leaders need the wisdom to see when a butsayer is being over-cautious and when he has spotted a potential show-stopper that no-one else has seen. Sometimes you need to thank the butsayer for his concern and inform him that, having weighed up the risks you are going ahead anyway. Other times, you need to take him on one side and find out what’s making him say ‘but’. Part of a leader’s judgement is to know when to do this.

We all found that out in 2008 what happens when people ignore the butsayers for too long. We will be living with the consequences for years.

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2 Responses to In defence of ‘but’

  1. Pingback: In defence of ‘but’ - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Jon says:

    Magnificent stuff Rick. I do believe you have just invented a new word which is destined to be immortalised in the English language. I guess a butsayer is pretty much the same as a naysayer – it just sounds a bit more contemporary.

    I agree with most of what you say and it is not inconsistent with my own feelings towards butsayers. I have no problem with healthy and positive challenge.

    The problem with butsayers is that they are ignored because they are butsayers. They are not ignored because they have a valid challenge, they are ignored because everyone is fed up of their constant complaining, negativity and downbeat attitude to everything and everyone. It renders their potentially critical observation or intervention impotent because people gave up listening to them years ago.

    It’s all about personal effectiveness and influence and butsayers don’t have it. That’s the real crime here. Had the error of their butsaying ways been pointed out by the but police when they first began to display the symptoms, maybe things would have turned out differently for them.

    It’s too easy to blame other people for ignoring the butsayers. If you want your voice to be heard and your ‘but’ to be taken seriously there are better ways to do it than to keep saying ‘but’.

    Your reference to regulators is funny. My next blog post is called “Policy Schmolicy” and it deals with this very point. I’ll send you a link when it’s published.

    Jon ‘The butslayer’ Weedon

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