Jay is one of my closest friends. He happens to also be a mentor to me, and a world-class trainer and facilitator. Jay finds a way to work a specific concept and phrase into nearly every workshop he facilitates. He’ll usually pause, maybe even take a seat for added drama, then take a beat to look at the workshop attendees directly and with intent, and he will say, “Words matter.” Jay then pauses again, allowing the workshop attendees time to let the idea sink in. After a few seconds he follows it up with something like, “What you say matters and how you say it matters.” I share this story of Jay with you because, as an observer and co-facilitator of Jay’s workshops, invariably this moment becomes a highlight, a moment when participants reflect and realize, at least in a small way, how they may have been getting in their own way, and maybe even hurting the people they lead.
The very best leaders have mastered their use of language. With just a few words they can instruct and inspire teams to take action and achieve with little resistance along the way. They also know what NOT to say. If you want to improve your leadership skills quickly, a great place to start is by looking at your language.
I use a reflective checklist when I’m leading my own teams and I also teach this checklist to other leaders when I mentor or coach them. It’s a set of questions I ask myself to make sure I’ve done my part as the leader. They are (in order):
- Did I explain why?
- Did I explain how?
- Did I provide the tools and training necessary?
- Did I offer support and allow them to let me know if they needed it?
- Did I check back in to see how things are going?
For the most part, this covers all my bases and helps me to ensure my people are ready to fly. Over time, it’s become pretty clear to me when others don’t use a checklist like the one above, when they don’t own their own responsibilities inherent to being the leader. Those who don’t fully own their responsibilities as the leader will shift accountability and blame to others and you can hear it in their language.
If you are a leader, or want to be one, don’t say the following 5 things.
(Or, if you do say any of the following 5 things often, it may be time for you to take a look inward.)
- “I told them to…”
Telling people to do things is not leading; and yet so many supervisors and managers seem to think that’s all that’s necessary. We’ve all seen a project go south because the team missed a step in the process. An executive will call the team supervisor to ask what happened and that team supervisor will say, “Well, I told them to…” referring the step that was missed. And in fact, the supervisor probably did tell the team to do that step. But without the “why” and the “how” and the “training and tools,” are they really capable of completing the work? Not easily, that’s for sure.
Instead ask yourself, “Did I explain why?” and “Did I explain how?”
2. “Upper management wants…”
Whenever a supervisor says, “upper management wants it this way,” or something similar, it implies that the team-leader doesn’t really buy into it. The team-leader comes across as not wanting to be accountable for the endeavor. There is an automatic loss of trust in this moment. Why would anyone want to put their trust in a leader who doesn’t buy-in to the objective or process at hand or who doesn’t align with his or her own leaders? They wouldn’t. And, they won’t buy-in either.
Instead say, “We are going to do it this way now. Let me explain why.”
“He should really do it this way,” “She should want to do it herself,” “they should know why we do it like that…” When we use “should,” we are removing accountability off our plates as leaders, and moving it to the plate of the person who “should” be doing whatever they’re supposed to be doing. The problem here is that a good leader shares accountability with their people. Look at the 5-question checklist above; all the questions are “Did I…” allowing ME to OWN the responsibility. There’s a big difference between “Do they know why?” and “Did I explain why?” If you say “should” a lot, then you probably have a habit of shifting accountability away. If you want to be your best leader, and I’m saying this as straight and as bluntly as I can, you can’t shift accountability away, you can’t blame others for the team’s failure or under-performance, you must own it.
Instead, look inward and ask yourself, “Did I explain why, how…”, “Did I provide training and tools…”, and “Did I support?”
4. “They just don’t care…”
This one is similar to “Should.” But I’m including it anyway because of how often I hear it from leaders that don’t have it figured out yet. Let’s say that you’re a team-member (not leader) on a sales team that is struggling to meet projections. You’re working hard, but you’re also frustrated because your boss rarely talks to you or the other team-members except to say, “you aren’t selling enough, you all need to get out there and SELL SELL SELL!!!!” How would you feel after two or three or ten weeks of this? Pretty down-trodden I’m sure. Will you want to continue putting your all into it every day? Probably not. Then one day you over-hear your boss say to another supervisor on another team, “My sales-people just don’t care.” How would you feel after hearing this? What do you NOW think of your boss?
My experience is that supervisors that say, “They just don’t care…” didn’t ask themselves “Did I explain why?” or “Did I explain how?” or “Did I provide the training and tools?” or “Did I offer support?”
Instead say, “What do my people need from me, so they know why this is important?”
5. “Never” or “Always”
Whenever anyone uses the words “never” or “always” on a regular basis, it’s a strong indicator that they don’t see things accurately and that they also don’t see things from others’ points of view.
“I always rinse off my dishes.”
“He never rinses off his dishes.”
“I never leave the toilet seat up.”
“He always leaves the toilet seat up.”
“I always use my blinker.”
“I never talk behind people’s backs.”
“I always listen carefully to my people.”
“I never ignore the customer.”
“She always ignores the customers, and then lets other people deal with them.”
“She always leaves a huge mess.”
“I always clean up after myself.”
Objectively, we know these statements can’t be 100% right. But if you start listening to people around you, you’ll hear it fairly often. We say “never” and “always” like this because as humans, we tend to judge others by what catches our attention, and judge ourselves by the best of our intentions; but this habit blinds us to reality.
Instead ask yourself, “What’s really going on here?” Look at situations objectively, gathering as much information/evidence as possible. The real situation is often somewhere in the middle where things are grey, not black and white.
As Jay says, “Words matter.” If you’re in a leadership position, or if you want to be in one, I encourage you to carefully re-read this and use it as a moment to reflect. Do you have a checklist like the one above? Do you say any of the statements mentioned above? Just making a few changes in your language can have a dramatic impact on your relationship with your people and the strength of your team.
If you would like Derek Rey Consulting to help you and your workplace with interpersonal communications, let’s talk.