James Comey’s testimony before the Senate on June 8 hinged on one key phrase: “I hope you can let this go.” According to the former FBI director, US president Donald Trump used these words to request that he back off a federal investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn.
Comey interpreted this as a directive, while Trump’s defenders argue that the president was simply expressing a heartfelt wish. “You don’t know of anyone ever being charged for hoping something, is that a fair statement?” Republican senator James Risch asked Comey. (In fact, it appears there is at least one case in which the words “I hope” have been used to bring charges of obstruction of justice, according to Dan Epps, an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.)
But no matter what happens to Trump, the exchange pulls back the curtains on a tactic much beloved by manipulative managers across industries. “Ambiguous language, like telling someone you hope, or suggest they do something, is the secret weapon of leaders who put covering their ass ahead of uncovering the solution,” says Nick Tasler, an organizational psychologist and author of The Impulse Factor: An Innovative Approach to Decision Making. “It’s a brilliant way to let accountability roll down hill.” Put simply, some managers will use “hope-speak” and other vague language to influence their subordinates while maintaining plausible deniability if things don’t work out the way they hope.
Some bosses may not mean be actively malicious when they adopt this kind of language—but they still risk creating confusion and unwanted (or even unethical) behavior. It can also wind up preventing employees from taking any kind of action at all, says Liane Davey, an organizational psychologist and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done.
“As a manager, it’s your job to clearly communicate how your team can accomplish your goals ethically,” says Davey. “If you continue to exert pressure without giving your team an option for how to succeed, you set them up to behave unethically. That is your failing as much as it is theirs.”
So, if you’re a leader inclined toward “hope-speak,” it’s time to examine the personal and organizational barriers keeping you from direct communication. And while there’s no good way to respond to a bad boss, if you find yourself on the receiving end of vague communication, there’s no harm in asking your manager to clarify exactly what it is they want you to do.