Five Things A Leader Should Never Say To A Team Member

Date: May 3rd, 2012

In this article, I am going to “think outside the box” and capture the “low-hanging fruit” of the corporate buzzwords that can cause real problems. There is certainly no lack of these catch phrases. We all probably have our favorites as well as our list of the most annoying slogans. The danger of these phrases may, however, go beyond just being annoying.

It may be that leaders are sending exactly the opposite messages from those they intend or that your organization wants them to be communicating. It will come as no surprise that most of the meaning in any communication is in its nonverbal components. Facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, body posture, eye contact and so forth may transmit as much as 90 or 95 percent of the total meaning of any message. In some ways, the nonverbal content is often more important than the words themselves.

We judge the sincerity, competence, power, vulnerability, guile, and a host of other attributes of the sender of a message by observing these subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) nonverbal cues. We also draw conclusions about the urgency of an instruction or a command through our interpretation of the nonverbal communication. Our understanding of the sender’s opinion of us and our abilities is also a part of our analysis of those nonverbal “hints.” Also, the choice to use some hackneyed phrase rather than straightforward language also “sends a message.” That message may not be what the leader intends at all.

There are hundreds (probably thousands) of articles denouncing the overuse of corporate jargon and the toll it takes on our patience and on the clarity, beauty, and precision of the English language. My focus in on a handful of phrases that, beyond the eye-rolling and exasperation experienced when confronted with a lot of meaningless corporate-speak, cause actual harm to the team’s objectives. Each of the five phrases below is designed to make a point about productivity, performance, team morale, and the like. But, each carries some risk that they may produce exactly the opposite effect.

•    Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions. This highly annoying phrase is often uttered with the best of intentions. The leader, of course, wants to encourage his or her team members to think for themselves. Be less dependent. Be more entrepreneurial. But, it often does more harm than good. Certainly, we want leaders to encourage more thoughtful problem solving at the team level. But, there are problems that are beyond the scope or abilities of team members. When those kinds of obstacles are identified, that is when it is most critical for them to come to their manager. If they have a good idea about how to solve the problem, that’s great. But if they don’t, it is very dangerous for them to withhold that information. In fact, that is when it is most important for them to come to you. If they take you literally, “I am not supposed to come to you unless I have thought of a way to fix this,” truly dangerous situations will linger without proper attention. Small problems become major catastrophes. Inherent in the phrase is the notion that team members who come to their leader without a solution are inadequate or poor performers. Too literal an interpretation of this will lead to isolation.

•    Hurry up. Anyone who has tried to complete a project or finish a proposal or meet a deadline knows how much anxiety that produces. Having someone remind us of the consequences of not finishing does little to move things along. This is especially true if that person is someone who has a lot of power over us. Also implied is the idea that the team member doesn’t understand the urgency of the situation. They are too stupid to know that they must move quickly. They may respond by increasing the level of activity but the result may be more errors that need to be corrected or overall poor quality. To use an old adage, “The hurried I go, the behinder I get.” There is some truth there. The effect is compounded the more it is used. Saying it once, may simply communicate the leader’s sense of urgency. Saying it again, or over and over, will almost certainly have the wrong effect.

•    Don’t make a mistake. Anyone who has watched the Olympics understands how this works. Athletes who have perfectly performed a routine thousands of times will make a mistake at the worst possible moment. When that happens, they often continue to make more and more mistakes. Top tier athletes, artistic performers, airline pilots, soldiers, surgeons and specialists of all kinds hone their skills by picturing a perfect performance. Many have special pre-performance routines that help them get into the proper frame of mind, into the “zone.” A basketball player who has scored a career high number of points in a big game will say, “The rim looked as big as a swimming pool.” But once someone says to them, “Don’t miss this shot,” they start thinking about “missing the shot” rather than that all-important image of the ball going through the hoop. The unintended message from the leader to the team member is, “You don’t care about good performance unless I remind you. You won’t be able to do it on your own.” That’s a sure-fire formula for lots of rework.

•    You’re a great employee, but…. In an earlier article, I wrote about the “sandwich” technique. “When a leader must confront a team member about unacceptable behavior, or provide any sort of unpleasant feedback, he or she should start by saying something nice, something positive. Then, give them the criticism or negative feedback. Conclude with some praise. The idea being that surrounded by the upbeat, constructive phrases, the team member will be more receptive to the bad news. Thus a “sandwich.” A little bread, the real meat, and then a little more bread. Then hope that the team member will “swallow” the whole thing.” (To read this article, search for “sandwiches” on Gordon Training International’s website.)  What this does, of course, is train the team member to not hear the compliment. This kind of thing is often interpreted as, “He or she thinks I am too weak to hear the truth.” Team members will complain, “My boss never talks to me unless I have done something wrong.”

•    There is no “I” in team. Meant as a way of stressing the importance of teamwork, this phrase carries the thinly veiled reproach, “You are selfish.” We risk learning of possible problems in the way teams treat their members by the use of such over-simplified responses to team member concerns. This comes from a very superficial understanding of what a team really is. “It is important for each team member to recognize and respect the needs of the team. It does not mean that the individual disappears. Nor does it mean that the needs of the individual team members become unimportant. Nor does it mean that a team member who tries to meet his or her important needs is not a “team player.” In fact, teams who fail to recognize this have trouble achieving their goals. Part of the team’s responsibility is to help its members succeed. That means listening to the individual team members as well as holding them accountable for completing their important team tasks.” It is often hard for teams to learn how to hold one another accountable, but trivializing the concerns of a team member complaint will tend to conceal the problem rather than help solve it. (To read my article on teams, search Gordon Training International’s website for “no ‘I’ in team”.)

•    There are no problems, only opportunities or challenges. Actually, there are problems. Trying to deny reality doesn’t make them go away. This phrase is used, I believe, to encourage team members to think more positively and creatively. But, it may also communicate that the leader is unwilling to listen when there is real trouble, when open, honest communication is most important. Motivational posters and happy faces do not an effective organization make. Good leaders certainly want to encourage the creation of a happy, satisfying workplace where people feel good about accomplishing things. But, this kind of message just makes the leader look weak or out of touch. Team members are happy and productive when they believe that they are doing meaningful work, they are treated fairly, their team leader is capable and honest, and that they have the resources and authority they need to solve problems and overcome obstacles.

There are a number of signals that indicate your organization is too dependent on these clichés. You know that you are a CJJ (corporate jargon junkie) if you:

•    Have used the term “bandwidth” more than once when referring to something other than computers.

•    Have to “circle back” to an earlier agenda item.

•    Preface every discussion of goals with the phrase, “at the end of the day.”

•    Use nouns as verbs, “We’re going to team that.”

•    Use verbs as nouns, “What was our react?”

Well, as “resource constrained” as I am, I hope that I have presented an alternative “scenario” that will help you “stretch the envelope” in your leadership training. I just wanted to make sure that we are “singing from the same hymnal” and increasing our ability to “synergize” our “solutioning.” (Autocorrect gave me “suctioning” as an alternative for that one). Seriously, if you are able to repress your gag response, do an inventory of your own personal list and try to hear how other people might interpret your message? Is it really what you want to be communicating? The overuse of such made up, overused phrases is often more dangerous than leaders realize. This is true of the five I have mentioned above but I am also sure that there are many others. The English language is beautiful, use it. Stay away from these clichés. Leadership is complex. Clarity is a virtue. Don’t try to wrap it up in tiny, pretty packages.

© 2012 William Stinnett, Ph.D., L.E.T. Master Trainer for Gordon Training International

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