I remember a Beetle Bailey comic strip from years ago that begins with General Halftrack standing atop a cliff watching the sun go down. He remarks to his aide, “What a beautiful sunset. I hope the troops are enjoying it.” His aide immediately runs off. In the final frame, unknown to the General who is still soaking in the view, every soldier on Camp Swampy has been mustered to stand in formation and watch the sunset.
I saw the same thing happen recently in a corporate team. A leader mentioned an idea in passing—just thinking out loud—and it was taken as a directive, so much so that resources were diverted from the team’s main effort to satisfy what turned out to be a fleeting thought.
Many leaders don’t realize the frustration they can cause with a few idle words. Here are three things you can do to prevent well-meaning staff members from going overboard:
1. Communicate clearly what your priorities are. Be overt about it. Tell people specifically what their main effort should be. No one should have to assume or infer anything.
2. Think about how others might misinterpret your words. Put yourself in their shoes, then clarify as necessary. Telling others what you don’t mean is just as useful as telling them what you do mean.
Use these three tips wisely and you’ll avoid suffering the resentment of your team over something you never intended in the first place.