It's Not What You Say...

Barry Goldberg On Leadership

It's Not What You Say...

In 2008, I wrote about how leaders choose what to do and how to get it done, with a nod to Jimmie Lunceford, a swing-era bandleader whose big hit was called “’Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It).”

This week, I am going to adapt that theme. At a time when our stress levels can run high, I am taking on “It ain’t what you say. It’s the way that you say it.”

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I’ll reach into some of my earliest coach training to talk about three basic concepts for communications designed for when we really want to be heard. These three concepts align with three words that I suggest using very carefully: “you,” “why” and “should.”

They are all perfectly fine words. For example, here are all of them in a single sentence. “Why should you listen to me about this?” But there are structures in English that are more likely to be perceived as challenges, putting people on the defensive, especially when these words come from the boss (or a parent).

Let’s start with “why.” When I ask someone why, I am asking him to explain himself to me. “Why did you do it that way?” sets up a need to defend or justify, even if I didn’t intend that.

A question that asks someone to explore his decisions or strategies without evoking fear or concern is more likely to be productive. “How is this process working?” or “What do you think will improve this process?” or perhaps “If you were starting over, what would you do differently on this project?” are more likely to open a dialogue. Now we are troubleshooting shoulder to shoulder and the need to justify is taken out of the question.

The second word to eliminate, or severely limit, is “you.” As in “You need to slow down. You are going too fast and you are going to run that lift into something.” A perfectly reasonable in-the-moment correction, especially for someone hot-rodding a piece of heavy equipment around people and inventory.

But just because someone knows that he is in the wrong doesn’t mean he’ll respond reasonably to correction — even to the person in charge. By calling someone down that way we are also clearly reminding him of how little independence and autonomy he has, which encourages compliance only when the boss is watching.

A simple change in how the concern is communicated makes the same point but does not trigger the same potential resistance. Two possibilities come to mind here. The first is a statement of the rule that applies, with no embellishment. “Speed in the warehouse is limited to under 5 mph, John.” The other is a statement of its impact on you or the organization: “John, I get very concerned for safety when I see a lift running that fast. The limit here is 5 mph. Please remember that.”

And last is the word “should,” often partnered with “you.” We’re not fond of being told what we “should” do. A cleaner phrase takes accountability for my experience of observable behavior and is less open to judgment: “I feel nervous when you drive so fast.” Or an even simpler observation of the behavior: “Janet, I notice that you clock in five minutes late pretty much every day.” I have clearly communicated that the behavior is not going unnoticed, but I have not attached judgment, shame or anger to it, causing an argument that will not contribute to the solution.

There are times when a manager may well want an employee to feel uncomfortable and communicate the full impact of an employee’s behavior. If John is a regular safety risk with the forklift and needs a clear message, then by all means, “why,” “you” and “should” away.

But there are times when the confrontational approach is counterproductive. In those cases, language matters.

So I will encourage you to try eliminating “you,” “why” and “should” from your feedback communications and see if you notice a difference in the responses you get. If it buys you only 10% better response and costs you nothing, is that not a win? You really should try it. (See what I mean?)

I. Barry Goldberg is an executive and leadership coach, a Vistage Peer advisory chair, and an EOS implementer in central Arkansas. His current projects include gaining mastery of online facilitation tools and the launch of a new private peer group in central Arkansas aimed at high potential growth businesses under $10 million in sales.