This topic is as old as leadership is. From the very beginnings of people being led, this art has been studied. People have been training, writing, and blogging about how to best communicate to those you mean to lead. The problem with saying anything to your staff is that they will always have three meanings, regardless to how much planning, thought, and good will you put into it. There will be what your words mean, what you mean by your words, and what each member of your team thinks you mean by it. It’s your responsibility to either strike certain phrases and statements from your vocabulary, or learn when the right time to use those words is.
“Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.”
- Stephen R. Covey, Author, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
I’m the boss. Just do what I say.
When you say this, you instantly have destroyed a bit of the trust on both sides of the conversation. In some cases, the working relationship you had prior to that statement will never be reestablished. Think about how you felt the last time someone told you that. You likely felt insulted.
You’ve communicated two things to the person that hears it:
- I don’t care about what you have to say or how you feel about this (much less the amount of time you might have put into this).
- You don’t matter enough for me to invest any time in communicating to you in any other way.
I’m sure that you don’t mean either of those things. However, the reality is that even if your staff never says it to you directly, this is exactly what they are thinking.
Don’t forget that the people reporting to you have a completely different perspective and set of information than you have, which is why they often don’t understand the purpose of what you’re trying to say. The more “rock star” this person is, the more you need to effectively communicate the “why” behind what you’re asking for.
Instead of saying this, you should dive deeper into why they might feel or think so strongly in their opinion. Maybe you actually don’t know some critical information, or perhaps they don’t. Either way, the company and both of you will be better off.
If you can’t do it, I will.
This is often the result of feeling frustrated that someone not doing something that you feel they should be able to do. They either haven’t done this task, or they’ve come to you directly about it. Whatever the task is, they don’t have the experience or knowledge to just do it, which is why you know anything about this to begin with.
Saying this to someone is indirectly telling them:
- I don’t care about your professional development.
- It’s not okay for you to not know something.
Let’s be realistic. At some point you didn’t know this either. This situation could now result in people hiding issues since they’ve been taught to be afraid to not know the answers. These issues will eventually be discovered by your customers.
If this has come to you, this is actually a perfect opportunity to spread your knowledge on the subject matter – effectively giving you one less thing to do next time. Give them a quick tutorial instead, and maybe even feed them the resources on how to figure it out on their own. There is no better investment of your time.
The best thing about handling this as an opportunity is that is has a direct impact on how your team feels about you, but even more, it builds a culture of everyone caring about each other. This employee will likely not hesitate to help their other co-workers now that they know that it’s okay to not know something.
I never said that.
I’ve been on both sides of this statement more times than I’d care to admit. At the end of the day, we are all human beings. As a human, we are all victims of inattentional blindness on a regular basis. It’s the same thing that causes us to panic when we didn’t see a car and almost hit it. We can often be blind in both hearing and sight and we are, throughout every day. Being aware of this, and accounting for it are the best ways to proceed.
Christopher Chabris covers this very well in his book titled The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend it.
You have been on both sides of this too. You’ve spoken to a customer and they said that you told them something that you’re certain you would have never said. You might have fell victim to this yourself with one of your bosses, when you’re certain that they said something, but they say they haven’t.
This is unfortunately something that will never go away. You’ll be dealing with this for the rest of your life, both in personal and professional situations. How we deal with it is what matters.
Never tell your staff that you didn’t say something. Chances are that you actually did say it. Although, there’s a chance that you also were misinterpreted. Either way, fixing this is simple.
Instead of uttering this painful phrase and embarrassing one or both of you, delve into the topic again. Find out what you spoke about before. Ask them to discuss it again. “I’m sorry. I want to go over this one again. Do you have time to talk it through again.”
When you own it and communicate with your staff about it again, you might be startled to find out that you did indeed make that previously unnecessary decision. However, the best part of this is that you’ve built up a culture of collaboration and teamwork that will spread to others in your organization. Your employees feel comfort in knowing that even when there are disagreements, you’re still approachable, even-keeled, and willing to compromise.
I don’t agree with…
This one is more for a team setting, or settings where the person you disagree with holds a leadership title or position. Saying these simple words can be detrimental to your company culture and the teamwork that you prefer to have in your own team and across other teams.
When you’re leading any team, there will be uncountable times when you disagree with one or more people on the team at any given moment in time. That’s okay. If you haven’t learned yet, this is how things work and how they get done. However, telling someone that you don’t agree with them is something that you should do carefully – even in a one-on-one scenario.
When you abruptly tell someone that you disagree, you demoralize them and put them in a defensive position, saying:
- I don’t value your idea.
- You’ve wasted our time.
- I’m smarter than you are.
Again, these things are not what you mean, but they’re what many people will feel as a result of your statement. Consider instead, a softer approach. An approach where you don’t point out the disagreement, but ask them for input on making the idea better. The goal here is to gently walk them through your thought process to hopefully arrive at your conclusion.
For example, instead of saying this, lead in with something positive and then ask a question. “I really like the way you’ve summarized goals 1-5. What was the idea behind number 6 though?”
Doing this doesn’t directly let on that you disagree with anything at all. And the lead-in compliment will prevent any defensive feelings. A follow-up to their explanation might be something like, “That’s interesting. I like the work you put into that. Have you thought about doing it this way though?”
The net result here is that you’re going to uncover strengths and weaknesses. You’ll perhaps find out that one or both of you have missed some details. Above all, you’re continuing to be a collaborative and engaging leader – again, something that will end up spreading through your organization.
I could have done it.
This is probably the worst thing that you could possibly say – especially in this list. There are many variations of this statement, such as, “If I spoke to them, they would’ve told me,” or, “When I do that, I always get them to close.”
This phrase comes as a result of one of your staff maybe getting something done, but perhaps not doing it as well as you think you could have done yourself. This is a natural feeling for you. As a leader, there’s bound to be some ego and confidence felt on your part. Being a leader by choice requires some level of narcissism, even if you don’t realize it.
The last thing that any employee wants to ever hear from you is that you’re better than they are – at anything. You’ve already firmly established this by being their “boss.” The fact that you sign their reviews or pay their paychecks is affirmation enough for them.
Saying this is yet another form of insulting your staff, by telling them:
- I am better than you at your job.
- You suck at your job.
Oh boy… and if you say this in front of ANYONE else, you shouldn’t be surprised if that person quits. This is perhaps the least number of words required to permanently demotivate someone on your team.
Instead of saying this at all, you should think of this as a training opportunity. Ask them how they got to that point. After hearing them out, offer some words of advice on how to approach this situation better next time. Instead of them thinking of you as the villain, you’ve just established a heightened level of trust and appreciation with them.
The Only Exception
Honestly, I would love to say and point out that there are some situations where you can relax and say these things. Unfortunately, it’s just not the case. If you want to be great at anything, you need to practice it in all aspects of your life. Letting your guard down simply because you’ve worked with someone for 10 or more years and have a great rapport with them isn’t an excuse for treating them with less respect than a brand new employee.
At the end of the day, the things that you do and say (or don’t), are the examples that your team will use when interacting with others, and with your customers. If that doesn’t scare you, it should. Take an extra moment next time and think through what you’re about to say to your staff, before you say it. Everything you do should instill and promote trust, communication, collaboration, and teamwork. These things lead to the inspiration and motivation you’re looking for.
This article is cross-posted from my personal blog.