If you have ever done anything mechanical, and I should say that I probably fit the minimum requirement for this, you have most likely come across the instructions “Warning: Do not over tighten screw!” If you are like me, then you may have read that only after torqueing down on that screw with everything you had until you heard a subtle crack and thought, uh oh.
I am not sure where I got this idea that brute force will solve all of my problems, but it is definitely in there pretty deep.
In communication and leadership the word “should” is equally seductive and harmful because it dangles the possibility of perfection in our work lives (as well as our personal lives), usually to our detriment. It is using a blunt instrument for a fairly subtle task: influencing, teaching, encouraging, connecting, etc… This is true even when we try to apply it to common sense advice. We all know that telling someone what they should or shouldn’t do is fairly annoying, especially when we are talking about peoples’ capabilities, i.e. “You shouldn’t bother playing basketball, you will never be good enough to be a professional at it.” I think that if Disney taught us one thing in this world, it is that only the villain says stuff like that.
But what about the good advice or “pep” talks that we sometimes give ourselves (or those who report under us), are those also bad?
Here’s how it usually goes:
“I (you) should speak up more in meetings.”
“You shouldn’t let him push you around.”
“I shouldn’t be so afraid to fail.”
“You should trust yourself more in your work.”
Now, these all sound like good advice. Who wouldn’t want to trust themselves more, be more brave and more proactive? In my experience, however, this does not work so well. Whether we are talking to ourselves or to another human being, it is important to bring awareness and a level of curiosity. There are many times that just drawing attention to some behavior, without any judgment at all, can help to correct the issue. If we follow up with a question that is open-ended, then we might actually learn something.
For example: A senior leader might notice that Sally isn’t speaking up in meetings. After the meeting is over, he might approach her and say, “I noticed that you didn’t speak up in the meeting today. I like to have your voice in the mix. What’s up?”
Now, it doesn’t have to sound exactly like this. Everyone has his/her own style, and I wouldn’t recommend launching into a conversation with a team member to whom you have never said more than two words; however, this is an example of inviting someone to see her own behavior and your expectations without extra unnecessary pressure. If the goal is to find out why Sally isn’t speaking up and to encourage her to do so, then you will have accomplished those goals. If you are genuinely curious about what is going on for her (maybe she feels intimidated or shut down in the meeting) then you will have added information for what is going on with your leadership group.
If we were to go to her and say, “You should speak up more in those meetings” all she gets is the judgment. She might speak up more in the next meeting, but we can probably imagine that it will be with a tense and defensive tone.
If we want to make connections, inspire people to be their best selves and motivate them to trust themselves more, then tightening the screws will almost never work. There are certainly times when it comes in handy, like when we need to push performance goals, correct bad behavior or reign in cocky attitudes, but in general judgment doesn’t work when we want people to be open and learn from their behavior.
I find that before I work on something mechanical and delicate, I have to take a deep breath first. This reminds myself that the goal isn’t to do this the quickest way but to accomplish the goal of putting it together. The same is true for communication and leadership. Sometimes we can accomplish a great deal just by slowing down, staying curious and being clear. With that approach we can begin to infuse a company and an organization with the freedom for growth and the employees with the self-confidence they need to have a bigger impact.