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The Midwest Maybe

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It is worse than no or yes. It is often said out of kindness, but has the opposite effect in many cases. An East Coast investor relayed the term "The Midwest Maybe" to a close friend of mine. When I heard it, I burst out laughing. Then I stopped and realized how sad it really is. We in the midwest are known for being friendly and kind. When asked to buy from a new vendor or to invest in a business or venture, we often reply with a "maybe". What we are not doing in many cases is telling the truth.  

For the new start-up company, a "maybe" can be fatal. The start-up hears "maybe" and thinks maybe yes. They work hard to follow up and try to win the business. Only later do they find out that the "maybe" was really a "no" hiding in kindness. For the start-up, the "maybe" became a time and resource waste.  

For the company looking to raise money, a "maybe" is seen as interest and perhaps validation. "I have three investors interested!" the entrepreneur claims. Perhaps. Or perhaps what he has are three acquaintances that will not give him the honest "no".

If you hear a "maybe" in business, you need to learn more. Ask what it will take to move the maybe to yes.

If you are the one delivering a "maybe", make sure you mean "maybe yes". If you mean "maybe no", just say no. You will do far less damage and free up the time of the other person to pursue another yes.

- Mike Colwell


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I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment and to be clear about what you mean, or to ask the person to be clear about what he or she means. I find the "maybe" frequently in my conversations. And, I use it, too and need to be more clear about my intentions. Thanks.

A consultant for our business organization referred to this behavior tendency as "Iowa indirectness". He observed that Iowans are truly a friendly and nice bunch of people. Where it works against us is in not being able to move past that niceness and address workplace performance behaviors that need to change. For example, leaders may roll our eyes at toxic behaviors, but we avoid being honest and often go to silence rather than directly telling an employee the impact of his/her behavior and what we want to see differently.
This consultant happened to be from the south, and he observed that the south had its own version of indirectness. He shares that southerners will use the phrase, "Bless his/her heart" in when speaking of another person, which is code for "I don't have the heart to tell this dear person they're not competent."

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