Hearing what isn’t there


One of the things that makes figuring out what’s going on and what the trends are so difficult is that the key pieces of information are generally not being talked about.

Take the US Presidential debates this year. In the last debate, the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, put forward, in passing, that debt is a security issue — then, went on, to say “I will not cut a nickel from the military budget”.

Well, a nation that depends on foreigners to buy its debt (because it won’t balance its budgets) does have a security problem. All it takes is the refusal to buy more debt to trigger a crisis. Cheaper than bullets, that.

Yet the reality of the US budget (never mentioned by either of the debating candidates) is that four-fifths of the US budget is tied up in defence spending, welfare, health care and pensions. Given that the United States only taxes itself enough to cover 57% of its annual spending, it’s fairly easy to make the case that any serious effort to fix the debt issue will require changes to all four of these categories.

Political debate about how much to do, and where, and whether to cut outlays or squeeze the economy by raising revenue, are all fair game. But the missing, silent element of the security issue was never talked about. By anyone.

The issue here, for someone practising personal due diligence, isn’t who’s “right” in political debate. It’s what’s missing from the discussion — and what does that mean?

The path to the future generally runs through what isn’t being talked about, with alternative futures unfolding with the various derivatives of the real situation.

Indeed, mentioning that “debt is a security issue” is what’s known as a weak signal: the early sign that the underlying issue is coming into a crisis point.

There are many silences that permeate the average workplace. Issues that can’t be discussed. These range from an honest appraisal of products, to markets, to the state of the organization’s finances and talent.

Peter Drucker talked, in The Practice of Management (1954), of how important it was to ask the question “if we weren’t already doing this, would we start now?”, to stop from unbalancing the enterprise to hold onto its past, rather than focus on its future.

If you can’t ask that question without risking your career, that is a warning all on its own, and the fact that no one has to say it means that the person who learns to hear what isn’t being said will have a leg up on their peers.

The nice thing (well, something has to make up for endless negative advertising, sound-bite “news”, robocalling during the dinner hour and the “he’s up! he’s down!” of the polls) about politics is that it’s a great place to start testing your skills at seeing and hearing what isn’t there. When someone makes a statement, is it consistent with their other statements? Do they apply it elsewhere? Or is it just a clip to grab attention?

Then … is what they said actually a truth?

Practising on political speech will hone your skills to take your ability to find the weak signals into the workplace, for the benefit of your career.

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