Tech Leader Pro podcast 18, Acknowledgement versus agreement

Published on 2022-10-21 by John Collins.



There is a saying in English:

"a nod is as good as a wink"[1]

This means that when a circumstance is so clearly understood by all parties, all that is required is a small gesture to express your full understanding.

As an active listener, I tend to nod and smile when I listen to someone. In addition I will often slip in some verbal affirmations, such as "yes/sure/ok" inserted within natural pauses by the speaker to encourage them to complete their comments. The intention is to demonstrate that I am giving the speaker full attention.

In my mind, it is my way of being polite and indicating to the speaker that I am listening to them.

However, from their perspective this could easily be interpreted as agreement, and there is a big difference between "yes I hear you" versus "yes I agree with you".

As a leader, it is critical to be clear with your communication, both verbal and non-verbal, and that decisions reached during a meeting are captured in writing and distributed soon afterwards, to ensure that everyone is aligned.

Remote work

This topic has become acutely relevant during the past two years, as due to the pandemic we are all using MS Teams, Zoom and Slack, and operating in hybrid modes where some of us are in the office, and some are remote.

On a conference call, even with video enabled you can find yourself trying to read someone's facial expressions on a tiny corner of the screen, in poor lighting and often with poor laptop web-cams. Put simply, body language in 2022 is even harder to read.

I have seen some companies trying to address this using emojis, where their corporate chat rooms and chat windows during video calls are sprinkled with emojis of support or approval. But I am really not sure about this one, as the emojis themselves can be misinterpreted.

A common example is the thumbs-up emojii commonly used on corporate chat applications like Slack and MS Teams: does that mean the person giving the thumbs-up is acknowledging the message they are responding to, or agreeing with it?

So once more to remove doubt, after a conference call someone should be tasked with capturing the notes of the call in writing, and distributing that afterwards to the entire attendee list.

Social media

Similar to the challenges with remote work, responses can be completely misunderstood on social media. Careers have been ruined due to someone posting a tongue-in-cheek message on social media, only for the audience to take it literally and report them. It is a real minefield, and we all need to be very careful about what we post on-line, especially if it is tied back to your employer in any way.

Twitter is a notorious example of this. Given that you have a very limited amount of text to make your point, and it is not supported by your facial expressions or vocal tones, the possibility for misunderstandings is very high.

Here you will see emojis and memes being used more frequently to try to fill that non-verbal gap, but once more these can be misinterpreted and used in different ways by different users.

Take for example the "like" button on Twitter. I know some users use that as a bookmarking function, others to approve of something, while others still as a way to acknowledge a reply to let the other user know "I've read your message". It's a great example of how even a single button press can be judged differently.

Leaders must provide clarity

As a leader, you must provide clarity and not ambiguity. You are the person that the team is depending on for this.

For approvals, you must do so in writing. Many companies have put formal approval processes in place for this reason, for purchase orders, vacation requests, hiring decisions etc., basically anything with a simple yes/no outcome.

While giving directions, you must also be very clear. If you want an action to take place, state it plainly and assign an owner. For reportees, if they don't know what you want from them, that is your problem and you need to fix that in plain terms. Directions should be clearly understandable, and the desired outcomes should be equally clear.

Finally for feedback, it is critical to be very clear. Acknowledge feedback received only when you agree with it, and ensure to push back when you don't, otherwise just nodding your head to everything will indicate that you agreed with all of it. While giving feedback, be firm but fair, and always provide examples to support your observations.

There is no room for ambiguity on digital or face-to-face communications, subtleties get lost. Be direct.


I joke around with my family and friends all of the time, because they know me well enough to know when I am serious, and when I am joking. On social media, I often thread the line between serious points and memes, again because this is fun and I enjoy being able to express myself.

In the corporate world however, there is a lot less room for such joking, and a lot less tolerance in general. Listen carefully to what is being said to you, and ensure your approvals are clearly separated from your acknowledgements. In this setting, I would recommend a terse style of communication for most interactions, as the more verbose you responses, the greater the odds of them being misunderstood.


Lets recap what we have covered today:

  1. As an active listener, it is important to realize that your nods of acknowledgement maybe misinterpreted as nods of agreement.
  2. Put simply, “a nod is as good as a wink” does not translate to the online, multi-cultural world.
  3. Leaders must be explicit with their approvals, ideally in writing via a formalized process.
  4. Remote work makes this especially important, as memes and emojis on chat forums, while fun to use, are no substitute for explicit feedback.
  5. Different facial expressions, tones, and emojis have different meanings across regions. A leader needs to be sensitive to these, and therefore always communicate in a clear way that is not open to misinterpretation.
  6. Listen carefully to what is being said to you, and ensure your approvals are clearly separated from your acknowledgements.
  7. Terse communication styles tend to be favourable, as verbose responses provide more opportunities for misunderstandings. Get to the point quickly, favouring using less words, then move on.

I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I look forward to covering the next topic in this series with you! In the interim if you want to follow me online, you can find my blog at, or follow me on Twitter @TechLeaderPro.

Thanks for your time, take care and have a great week!


[1]: Definition of "a nod is as good as a wink" -

[2]: My original 2018 blog post on "Acknowledgement versus agreement" -


File details: 12.8 MB MP3, 8 mins 54 secs duration.

Title music is "Still Cold" by Crystal Shards, licensed via


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