Watch Your Words

leadership communicationYou need to be careful what you say as a leader.

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.

3. Train others to listen for and learn your intent. If they can understand that, then they’ll be armed to take initiative and make smart decisions without you.

Use these three tips wisely and you’ll avoid suffering the resentment of your team over something you never intended in the first place.


7 thoughts on “Watch Your Words”

  1. Good point, Geoffrey. I think the easiest way to avoid this problem is to have a formal system for transmitting decisions. I recently re-learned this lesson during an update of my Web site design. The designer, whom I’d worked with before, kept doing things I did not want or did not think were high priorities. The fault was my lack of clarity, I realized. So I asked him to only work on items I entered and prioritized in a shared spreadsheet–even if I mentioned something else in an e-mail. This eliminated the problem. When working with teams, I push them to put all tasks into project plans and/or action item lists. The latter includes the task, responsible person, and due date, and takes literally seconds to update, so no one can claim it is too much trouble. But team members know they are only accountable for what goes in the list or plans, and team leaders can get a very clear idea of who is doing what.

  2. This is great, Jim. We have a saying at McKinney Rogers: “What’s clear is simple; what’s simple is understood; what’s understood gets done…every time!”

    These lists/plans/spreadsheets can easily be shared within a team via dropbox or google docs. (we use dropbox and I highly recommend it).

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Geoffrey,
    Communication is the key to a any successful partnership. When you are in a leadership position, you are partners with those you are leading and therefore the same principles apply. It’s pretty tough to have effective communication, if good listening skills aren’t in place.

    You were spot on when you said “No one should have to assume or infer anything.” It’s amazing how many problems arise when assumptions are made.


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