Have you ever unwittingly demanded a blueberry muffin?

Senior executives' observations are often taken as commands. Be sure that your team knows the difference.

Robert Sutton, professor of management at Stanford University and author of The No Asshole Rule, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal about how CEO’s comments often ending up wasting their employees’ time. Sutton wrote:

“They give orders without realising how much work those directives entail. They make offhand comments and don’t consider that their employees may interpret them as commands. And they solicit opinions without realising that people will bend over backward to tell them what they want to hear – rather than the whole truth, warts and all.”

In an example he gave, a CEO once remarked that there weren’t any blueberry muffins at a breakfast meeting. Though he didn’t actually want or need a blueberry muffin, his staff made sure that there were blueberry muffins at every meeting from then on. The CEO didn’t realise, until years later, that the blueberry muffins that made a regular appearance at meetings were there because of his casual observation long before.

Sutton wrote:

“Leaders don’t mean to waste their employees’ time. Unfortunately, many of them heap unnecessary work on the people below them in the pecking order – and are downright clueless that they’re doing it.”

In another example, a CEO of a retail chain was discussing a rude clerk to another of his employees, which resulted in a multi-million, years-long internal customer services training initiative. The CEO had never intended for such a campaign to be launched, as he never thought it was necessary, and had to end the initiative years later.

Sutton encouraged leaders to draw a line between commands and random ideas or remarks. He recommends saying: "Please don’t do anything, I am just thinking out loud."