In our study of language, we learn about the different tenses such as present, past, future, subjunctive and conditional. The “negative pregnant” is not on this list. Yet, it is a frequently used tense that your people hate to hear. What is the negative pregnant and how can you avoid it?
There are two forms of negative pregnant expression: the implied negative pregnant and the
Implied negative pregnant. Imagine a situation where your SVP HR would like to discuss an issue with you that you are not yet ready to consider. When he asks for a time to talk, you suggest catching up over a drink after work. When he comes by around 7pm, you ask him: “It’s very late, I assume you’d like to get home and see your kids before bedtime?” On its face, this sounds like you are a sensitive CEO thinking about your SVP HR’s family. In fact, what you really want is to avoid meeting. To accomplish this result, you have embedded a desired negative response in what looks like a positive question. Put another way, the question is pregnant with the seeds of a desired negative conclusion: we are NOT going to meet tonight. Contrast this with: “Where should we go for a drink?”
Disguised negative pregnant. In the previous example, the CEO laid his cards on the table, albeit in a form designed to lead the SVP HR to a specific conclusion. Now let’s look at a different example. You know that one of your division leaders wants to take the lead on an initiative that could be given to one of several divisions. You have decided not to give him the initiative if he accepts a different initiative instead. But, you don’t tell him this. You ask him if he would please lead the second initiative but you don’t mention the initiative that he really wants to lead. He gladly accepts to show you that he is your go-to-person for important initiatives. You then assign the first initiative to a different division, announcing both initiatives at the same time. What happened? Your offer of the second initiative was pregnant with a negative: the fact that accepting it meant losing ownership of the first initiative. The guy never saw it coming because you didn’t place your cards on the table. Contrast this with “I really need you to lead Initiative A rather than Initiative B. Please support this decision.”
In both cases, you have made key members of your team very unhappy. You did it because it was much easier than being truthful. You got your way, but at a big cost. The conclusion is clear. If you want to be an engaging, respected leader, avoid the negative pregnant. If you can’t, then get help from an executive coach who can get you over this major derailer.
One final point. Millennials in particular can’t stand the negative pregnant which is why they invented the term. If you don’t recognize this, you will disengage a generation. All it takes is a few examples cascading through the rumor mill. And in today’s viral world, it can get out of control fast.