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The Weight of Your Words


{#/pub/images/TheWeightofYourWords.jpg}As a senior-level manager, your words are weightier than they used to be. When you speak, people listen and respond. This is both a blessing and a curse.


Of course, it’s helpful that your words (backed by your authority) are taken seriously and compel action. But there’s another side of the coin to consider. Do people sometimes put more stock in what you say than what you intended?


This can happen when you forget your role and speak casually about almost any topic. I recently heard a new employee in an organization say she couldn’t talk about politics at work. Since I know her workplace culture is very open, I was surprised enough by her statement to ask her to elaborate. It turns out that she’d been at a networking event with one of the senior managers in her organization. He made an offhand comment about being “sick and tired of politicians.” She made a mental note to never talk about politics. 


You see, as a by-product of your job title, people will always take you more seriously than they would otherwise. That means you must be careful about what you say and how you say it. For you, there are no throwaway remarks. Before you speak, you need to measure your words and their impact on others.


This is particularly important when it comes to anything you say about people. When you make an assessment of someone’s performance, it will sound to others like a pronouncement of judgment. The problem is that you are less likely to be fully informed than front-line managers when it comes to the full picture of any one person’s performance. So what you observe or assume may not be complete. Nevertheless, what you say  –  founded on partial information – will have more impact and sticking power than the words of someone closer to the situation.


Here’s an example. The CEO of an international supplier noticed one worker’s speed and dexterity during a walk-through at a production facility. He publicly praised the employee and made quite a show of his admiration for what he perceived to be hard work and commitment. Unfortunately, this “halo effect” carried the employee through several performance appraisals. After the CEO’s pronouncement, it became politically incorrect to talk about how this employee’s speed was actually careless haste and the cause of many errors and overtime hours spent on rework.


Negative assessments you share with others will have an even greater and longer lasting detrimental effect. Your comments “poison the well” because front-line managers will be less likely to spend time developing and supporting employees you have noticed in a negative way. 


A better approach is to ask questions and withhold your opinions until you know the full story. Remind yourself that you are at least one step removed from what’s happening in the day-to-day. What you see and hear is only a small piece of the whole. 


Teach the supervisors and managers who report to you how to help you expand your purview. By sharing your intent and acknowledging your own line-of-sight limitations, you will be empowering and respecting those you have entrusted to work with the broader team. Explain that you will be seeking their opinions more often and reserving yours until you are more fully informed. 


When a situation arises, a decision needs to be a made, or a particular employee’s actions catch your attention, step back and ask questions like these:


  • What do the people closest to this see that might be different from what I am seeing?


  • What patterns or trends do I need to understand for context?


  • Who will be affected or influenced by my opinion about this? How so?


  • How necessary is my opinion about this? What if I just stay out of it?


  • What is causing me to feel a need to express myself in this situation? 


You may find that old habits die hard. In your first management roles, your opinion and assessment was essential in getting the work done day-to-day. You were paid to stay involved in the “nitty gritty” details and to know what was happening at a granular level. That’s not the case for senior managers who are expected to stay focused on higher-level and more strategic work. Your temptation to offer your unsolicited opinions may be a simple case of habit. But it won’t serve you well at this level.


Pausing to consider your words and the long-term impact they will have is the least you can do to give every employee a fair shot at success and to give your direct reports a chance to prove themselves by forming and acting on their own assessments. 


Your words have weight. That’s why you should wait to speak them.   



{#/pub/images/DebCalvertNew.jpg}Written by Deb Calvert, President, People First Productivity Solutions-Author of the DISCOVER Questions book series, Deb has worked as a sales productivity specialist and sales researcher since 2000. She is certified as a Master Sales Coach, Master Trainer, and host of CONNECT! an online radio show for selling professionals where listeners ignite their selling power in just an hour. Deb helps companies to boost productivity through people development. This work includes leadership program design and facilitation, strategic planning with executive teams, team effectiveness work, and performance management program design. 


Do you have a question for Deb?  Please visit our Senior Manager Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert 


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