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You Can't Unring a Bell

Probably the most iconic gadget in the Men in Black movies is the neuralyzer, the little device that makes a super bright flash and erases people's memories. The MIB Agents would use it on civilians that witnessed an event, so they would “forget” what they saw, enabling the MIB Agents to maintain secrecy of the events.

Unfortunately, founders and business owners don't have a neuralyzer. After taking an action or making an announcement they can't make employees, customers or others forget what they said.

The most common example is the public disclosure.

A company makes an announcement (earnings, plant closings, responses to social media, etc.) and later finds that perhaps they were premature in making the announcement. Typically, you might hear in the pre disclosure discussions among leaders the saying “You can’t unring a bell”. Usually, it is to imply that there is no going backwards after the action is taken. For example, “Are we confident in our decision? Are we sure this is the correct path to take because once we announce layoffs we can’t walk the words back, we can't unring that bell.”

Scenarios where the saying is used include discussions regarding public filing disclosures, M&A transactions, product/pricing disclosures, customer communications and employee relations, among many other areas. It could be that the company did not think things through before releasing a statement or double check documents prior to putting them in the public domain.

Uber's leadership blunder

In 2017, former CEO of Uber Travis Kalanick was caught on camera arguing with an Uber driver, who had shared a common complaint drivers had on the company dropping prices and raising standards. Kalanick responded ungraciously, using some ungentlemanly words, and at one point, got personal with the driver by accusing him of playing a blame game rather than taking responsibility for his life. He could have handled the matter coolly and in failing to do so, landed himself (and Uber) in a spot after the video got leaked.

Kalanick did try to unring the bell with a letter apologizing for his behavior. In addition, he negotiated a $200,000 payout with the Uber driver. However, the incident couldn't have come at a worse time, as Uber had only recently paid $20 million to settle FTC charges that it recruited drivers with false promises about their prospective earnings. The company was also, at the time, embroiled in allegations of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and trade secret thefts. Their CEO's behavior, which was in the public domain for all to see, only sought to increase suspicions that all was not well at the company.

Disney's timing on the GOP bill

60% of employees say they expect their CEO to talk about controversial social and political issues. Disney seemed to have missed the memo when they stayed mum during early discussions by lawmakers on bringing a bill that would bar instruction on sexual orientation in Florida schools.

After pressure from employees and LGBTQ activists, the Mouse did squeak but by then, the bill was close to its final passage. Their support for LGBTQ citizenry didn't quite ring true for it had come so late and only after criticism from employees. The impression Disney gave was of trying to seek social currency rather than standing up for gender equality.

In response to Disney's criticism, governor Ron DeSantis called the company 'woke' and pushed to prevent Walt Disney World from operating a private government over its properties in Florida. If Disney had planned the timing of their opposition correctly, maybe they would have attracted praise for acting woke. Instead, a lack of thoughtfulness on their part threw the insult behind their 'woke' tag into sharp relief.

Using timing skillfully plays a part in ensuring the success of your strategic actions and communications. In many situations, you have control over the timing of your statements, disclosures and strategies.

Don't do anything without thinking carefully about it

You can't unring a bell. There's no neuralyzer in the real world. It's worth pondering over whether you're acting in haste, revealing more than what's necessary, or framing your message correctly. If you don't take care or you go against the grain, you'll be left with a pile of mess to sort out not to mention a hit to your reputation.

Have other uses for this saying? Have other sayings you frequently use? Do expand all our readers' (and our) understanding of boardroom sayings. You'll be helping share business lessons that allow everyone to make better decisions.

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