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What Are We Not Saying?

By Sherri Petro (1200 words)
Posted in Communication Skills on July 29, 2014

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A provocative question. This is not about interpreting nonverbal behavior or playing Hollywood Game Night at the company picnic. It’s about being tight-lipped with our employees when we could choose not to. It’s about the messages we could be saying that would go a long way in engaging them, something we keep saying we want but can’t seem to get out of our own way to create.


What do employees want? We have scores of studies that show us. Whether you review Ross DePinto’s Emerging Leaders research for the Center of Creative Leadership in 2003 or Pew Research Center’s work 10 years later, it’s fairly consistent. Simply, as employees we want to enjoy our work, receive reward (intrinsic and extrinsic) for what we do and we want to be treated with respect. 


Let’s take some counsel from business woman extraordinaire, Oprah Winfrey.  No stranger to respect, gratitude, and enjoying work, she expressed some excellent thoughts in her 2011 talk show send-off about her experience. She spoke about the guests during the 25 year run of her show. “…and all 30,000 had one thing in common -- they all wanted validation. ... They want to know, do you hear me? Do you see me? Does what I say mean anything to you?"

Regardless of whether we are talking employees or guests, here are five sentiments I would like to hear a whole lot more of for support and validation in our business world. Let’s engage by saying -- and meaning --- the right things.


1.     “What do you think can make you even better?”

What makes it a great thing to say? 


   -  They heard us say they are already good.  Validation! 

   -  We start out on a positive note and still have room to bring in areas where attention is needed.  

   -  The employee is asked, not just told.  They are engaged in their own development which also creates a pathway for future accountability.


2.     “Here’s how to do your job well…

(then demonstrate and give them the resources.)” 

What makes it a great thing to say?


   -  We move away from mandatory mind-reading and, instead, clarify expectations.  Woo hoo!  We’ve got a boatload of people who have been given a lot of freedom, wanted or unwanted, and are struggling with their roles.

   -  If employees are not enjoying their work, it may be because they don’t know how.  We have the opportunity to show them how they can.

   -  It forces us to take time ahead to define what excellence looks like. Sometime we expect employees to know what we mean with some pretty glib instructions. We can even include the definition in the development of that exceptional onboarding program we want to develop.    (See box below)




3.  “I care about you as a person and I care about your goals.” 


This exceptional little gem comes from that missive that I love -- Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillan, Joseph Grenny and Al Switzler.  


What makes it a great thing to say?


   -  The employee feels valued.

   -  Even with tough stuff that must be said, we have intimated our commitment to the individual.

   -  We have sensitive employees who take what happens at work very personally. We’re signaling that it’s the situation that is bad -- not the person.


4.     “We’re changing.  We’re going to take the good stuff with us and, as your leader, I’ll change first.” 

What makes it a great thing to say?


   -  We have respected the great work done in the past of which employees are proud.

   -  We volunteered to do the hard stuff, too. Expecting, or worse, requiring -- our employees to change when we have no intention of changing ourselves is just plain bad.

   -  We get to model what managing change in a healthy manner looks like. Yay, us!


5.  “Thank you for __________”

What makes it a great thing to say?


   -  With real substance as to why we are thankful, we can show the employee that they have been seen.  Generic “thank yous” need not apply.

   -  Gallup asks for feedback on this statement in their famous Q12 “In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work” for the annual Employee Engagement Index ™ calculation for a reason!

   -  Regardless of which generation we are in, research shows us that everyone wants to be recognized for their achievements.


Reflecting back on Oprah’s thoughts, what are we not saying that would help our employees feel that their voices have been heard, that we see them for the effort they expend and that their thoughts mean something to us?   If these five don’t work for you, then figure out some sentiments that do. I teach this in training webinars all the time! Find something that you do resonate with.


Need a little reminder to make this happen and take this counsel to heart? Create a sticky near the computer or jot a note on the closest smart device where it can be seen.  It should say, “What am I not saying?” More effective communication begins with each of us.


{#/pub/images/SherriPetroUpdated.jpg}Written by Sherri Petro, President of VPI Strategies & California Miramar University (CMU) Professor Sherri is a professor, accomplished strategist, organizational development professional and executive coach.  She consulted for 13 years in the for-profit, non-profit, and government sectors after a 16 year corporate career.  She teaches the Strategy Capstone as well as Leadership, Change Management and Business Ethics courses in CMU’s MBA program. Her current passion is educating organizations on how to increase organizational sustainability by leveraging the talents and skills of all in multi-generational workplaces. Sherri offers remedies to misunderstandings that result from different belief structures and lack of coherent communication by creating understanding and making connections at the belief level not only at the behavioral level.


Do you have a question for Sherri?  Please visit our Workplace Communication Skills Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Here are some related articles you may be interested in: 


Communicating Change In a World Traveling at Break-Neck Speed

The Weight of Your Words

Developing An Emotionally Intelligent Organization

Overcome Complacency in the Workplace

Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace: How to Develop Yourself & Your Team



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Comments (2)

Harry posted on: August 5, 2014

Sherri - Great article. Any good leader needs to be able to communicate well with his employees. The 5 points you mentioned essentially communicate clarity, caring and appreciation. This is what all employees want from their leaders. Well said.

Sherri Petro posted on: August 7, 2014

Thanks, Harry, I appreciate the feedback. It pains me that we are not taking such simple steps!

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