Stop the ghosting and start saying no

I’ve been ghosted more times than I can count. Around this time, a senior executive enthusiastically offered to introduce me to the CMO of one of the biggest tech companies. It never happened. There was this one time I did eight rounds of interviews with a major financial institution, and the executive search firm never called me back. And finally, there was the time when a PR firm urgently reached out because they wanted me to host a podcast for their client. A year later, I am still waiting to know the next steps.

Ghosting is a common phenomenon in personal and professional relationships. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of social and personal relationships, 25% of participants said they had been ghosted by a partner. When it comes to job hunting, 93% of respondents in a 2020 LinkedIn poll said they were passed over during an active hiring process.

While it’s easy to lament being ghosted, it’s harder to admit that many of us have ghosted someone else. You promise to give a business presentation, offer to review a resume, commit to being a referee, volunteer to speak on a panel, or say you’ll provide feedback to a colleague — and you don’t give not following. As many times as I’ve been ghosted, I’ve also been guilty of never returning that call or not answering those repeated email attempts, because I was busy and overwhelmed, that I didn’t was more interested or just anxious to have the conversation.

Ghosting can have consequences that you may not immediately recognize – for example, you could miss out on great talent, partnership opportunities, income, or even your next leadership role. Ghosting can also erode the bridges in your networks, leaving others with the impression that you are unreliable. Repeated ghosting can have a devastating impact on your leadership brand.

Here are five ways to find a balance between managing your time and energy while meeting the commitments you have made.

Just say no more often.

I recently coached a friend’s brother to negotiate a job offer. Later he emailed to say he had accepted the offer, thanked me for my time and had a request. “Could you talk to my friend?” I told her how helpful you were and she could use your coaching.

I stared at the email in my inbox for four days until I finally replied, “I’m glad I was of service to you. I wish I could help your friend, but I just don’t have time right now. He replied within minutes: “Are you sure? Because it wouldn’t take long and she would really need your help. As I tried to say no, I found myself in a position where I was persuaded to say yes. I said nothing more, wishing his friend good luck. I never heard from him again.

“As a leader, I have to be sure that when I say yes, I can keep what I promise. And I can’t be forced to say yes,” executive and consultant Kimberly Lee Minor told me. She added:

One of the biggest contributors to ghosting can be when we overcommit and take on more than we can actually do. It can then be difficult to admit that we cannot keep our promises and that we can disappoint others. Some leaders may choose silence and no longer being in communication as the easiest response, which is when ghosting ensues.

Minor wears many hats. She is president of sportswear company Bandier, founded her own consultancy-focused firm DEI, and sits on the board of directors. She can’t afford to push herself. His simple advice to say no may seem easier said than done. We can fear not being liked or disappointing others, like my friend’s brother, who is no longer in contact with me. But in the long run, saying no more often can prevent you from inadvertently cutting ties and damaging your personal brand.

Don’t let guilt hold you back.

I once ghosted an old colleague. My boss had enthusiastically agreed to have a networking meeting with them, but ended up canceling the meeting at the last minute. He never rescheduled and told me later that he was out of time for the meeting. My former colleague kept emailing me to check in. I felt so guilty and never answered. I felt like I had led them to believe that there was a job opportunity at my company and that my boss would help me. It seemed easier to say nothing at all.

Don’t let guilt stop you from communicating and providing an update. In my case, I could have come full circle with a quick note: “I know I promised to put you in touch with my boss, but his schedule has since changed and he’s no longer available to meet.” If I come across any openings in the company, I’ll keep you in mind. Good luck with the process!”

We will all find ourselves in a number of situations where we still don’t have clear answers or results. Maybe we haven’t been able to make a decision yet or the decision is not really ours. Here, communication is key to avoid ghosting. A brief update provides both you and the other with individual closure and ultimately relieves you of any guilt you may be clinging to.

Term compensation opportunities.

“When editors and reporters reach out to my clients for their expertise, they usually have tight deadlines and need a quick response,” Sarah Solomon, founder and CEO of Publify Relations, told me. “So if you commit to doing an interview or writing an opinion piece, and you don’t follow them and ghost them, chances are they won’t contact you again in the future.”

As a publicist, Solomon has coached me over the years. She advises clients like me to avoid over-committing and ultimately ghosting by being upfront and honest. If the time isn’t right for you, let us know. Sometimes the other party can be flexible on the timing.

If you have too many other commitments or if you don’t have the expertise the other party is looking for, pay for it. Nominate others in your place to be featured in the article, do the podcast interview, be on the panel, or take part in that advice gig. Following this advice, I created a list of trusted peers in my network that I name when I know I won’t be able to say yes. I have their permission to do so and I am also careful not to recommend them for unpaid work or opportunities that would not be useful to them.

Don’t give each other time.

Once, a family member who I hadn’t been in contact with in a long time introduced me to someone I didn’t know through LinkedIn messages. The note said, “You must meet Mita. She can help you with your company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives! The person immediately replied saying that they were looking forward to meeting me. I was mortified. I didn’t have time to meet them. This family member gave my time without asking my permission. I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t answer. I ended up ghosting the person.

When I receive unsolicited messages from people I don’t know, I don’t consider my silence to be ghosting because I don’t know them. But when someone I know introduces me to someone, it creates expectations that I will meet and follow. As tempting as it may be, don’t give someone else time without their permission. With team members, make sure you understand their workload and commitments before signing them up for initiatives. With those in your wider network, don’t give introductions without asking their permission first. And when that surprise intro hits you, you can stop the ghosting by saying, “Hi, I wish I had time to log in. Given my current commitments, I do not. I wish you the best.”

Break bad news.

As the United States heads into a possible recession, layoffs accelerated in the last quarter and are expected to continue this year as companies seek to control costs. Canceling offers and putting in place hiring freezes will be another lever companies will use. As Ben Lerner, co-founder of executive search firm TheFind, advised me, leaders need to deliver tough news with a sense of urgency and not delay the inevitable:

As more and more companies implement hiring freezes, it’s critical that leaders inform candidates who have participated in an active search process. Some candidates have spent hours preparing and interviewing for a role that is now indefinitely on hiatus. Ghosts cannot be an option. Remember that you are a representative of the company and they deserve to hear from you directly, instead of finding out about the news on their social media.

Whether it’s a promotion or pay raise that won’t happen again, firing decisions that need to be communicated, or a leadership training course that’s been cancelled, don’t delay in sharing the update. Because the longer you wait, the more likely you are to ghost and not share it. And in the current economic climate, there will be more difficult news to share. Accept the power and responsibility you have as a leader and end ghosting once and for all.

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