There’s a term used in medicine called “the pertinent negative” that helps doctors and other medical professionals diagnose illnesses and identify problems. Essentially, it’s to look for what’s missing.
For example, a pertinent negative is when it appears someone has heart failure but they haven’t gained weight, a common symptom of heart failure. To a doctor that’s weird, and it’s a pertinent negative, because weight gain is missing from the symptom list. This usually prompts further investigation to avoid misdiagnosis. What else could it be?
Pertinent Negatives in Communication
In the communications business, especially in crisis management and issues management, we encounter our own pertinent negatives which inform our work.
I once worked with a company that was experiencing major unrest from a group of highly talented and much sought-after electrical engineers. They were the backbone of the tech firm’s research and development operation.
They weren’t happy and it started to take on the feel of an organized labor situation. The CEO of the company assumed they wanted more money, but that wasn’t their issue. If they wanted more money, they said, they all had headhunters knocking on their doors every week. They could leave the company.
They said they wanted a better work environment, to which the CEO thought that meant a total restructuring of the offices and facilities so that R&D would have the most prime location. That wasn’t it, either.
Was the issue one of respect? Weren’t they being treated right by management or their immediate supervisors? No, that wasn’t it. So, what could it be?
We looked around the workplace and noticed something that was missing. Perks. The little day-to-day perks that other tech companies offered employees. Leather couches in meeting rooms, instead of just tables and chairs. Adjustable lighting so they could work without omnipresent fluorescence. Deluxe computer monitors. A nice latte machine.
Apparently, when other firms were recruiting these employees, trying to steal them from the organization, they had all of these perks, which led the otherwise happy employees to wonder why they couldn’t get the same perks without leaving the company. After all, they liked their compensation, their work, their supervisors and each other. They didn’t want to leave if they didn’t have to.
The pertinent negative was perks. The unhappy employees just couldn’t articulate it, and the management team didn’t suspect that as the core issue at first.
Needless to say, when compared to raising salaries across the organization, or reconstructing workspaces, the solution here was cheap and quick. And most importantly, it worked.
Always Look for What’s Missing
The latte machine became a symbol for me of that pertinent negative. Always look for what’s missing before coming to any conclusions.
Before and since, I’ve always considered the pertinent negative as an important step in the research and analysis process before providing any clients with recommendations and communications solutions.
When we’ve done communications audits, brand audits, crisis communications plans, crisis communications response recommendations and strategies. In every case, a dedicated part of the process has been to look for what’s not presenting itself as part of the problem.
Keep this in mind the next time you find yourself perplexed with a business, organizational, workforce or communications problem. Ask yourself what’s missing.
If this is a topic that interests you, let us know. I’d be happy to talk communications and public relations.