Sometimes two words are all it takes to keep work relationships and projects on track. Dan Rockwell lists some powerful two-word combos on his Leadership Freak blog. Need to move an agenda forward? Try, “what’s next?” or “why wait?” Need to challenge the team? “Reach higher” or “go large” might do the trick.
Of course, there are situations that require more than a two-word response. And regardless of the old saying, talk isn’t cheap – the wrong words can cost you professionally and personally.
On the other hand, “every conversation we hold is an opportunity for discovery, growth and learning,” writes John R. Stoker in his book, “Overcoming Fake Talk: How to Hold Real Conversations That Create Respect, Build Relationships and Get Results” (McGraw-Hill, 2013).
There are no perfect, one-size-fits-all responses to the workplace scenarios that follow, but there are reflexive responses that seldom improve matters as well as thoughtful approaches that move things in the right direction.
Let’s start with Negative Nellie because there’s one in every office. She’s at it again, shooting down every idea and countering with “buts” whenever possible solutions are offered without suggesting alternatives. While it’s accurate to say her “contributions” add no value, telling her so would be accusatory, inflammatory and ultimately unproductive.
Before saying anything, “Talk to yourself first to find out what’s really frustrating you,” suggests Rockwell.
That’s just the beginning, not the ultimate aim, of the self-talk, he adds. Say to yourself, “I’m frustrated because… and that frustrates me because…” and keep going and filling in the blanks until you arrive at a positive priority. This helps you develop a positive intention for addressing situations and behaviors – not just Nellie’s, but all manner of office characters.
A simplified version might go like this: She frustrates me because she always pipes up but adds nothing. This frustrates me because it slows us down. This frustrates me because it compromises our deadline. This frustrates me because the client expects results.
The priority underlying the frustration is to please the client and uphold the firm’s reputation.
Once you know this, you can bring it back to Nellie. “Positive intention is the big thing,” Rockwell says. “You might say, ‘I’m sure you want us to please the client and succeed. You’ve said no to every idea and I’m just wondering what’s up with that?’”
Given the opportunity, Nellie may point out real obstacles the group needs to address, but if not, you’ve cleared the way to move forward, Stoker says, because at that point you can honestly say, “OK, I have heard your concerns; now I would like to explore the upside to doing it this way.”
You won’t always have time to trace all your frustrations to a positive priority, but you can take a mental shortcut and ask yourself, “How can I frame this positively?”
Similar to Negative Nellie is the change resister who insists that, “We’ve always done it this way.” Often, this resistance permeates an entire department or organization.
Stoker says a leader can firmly state, “I know you have always done it that way. I would like to talk about doing it the best way in the current circumstances. Let’s do that.”
If the old way is the best and only way as far as a person or group is concerned, “Ask for specifics: Why is the old way better? Why won’t the new way work?” Stoker suggests. “They have to provide some substantiation.”
Perhaps as a new hire or first-time manager, you may encounter insubordination and the need to establish your authority. The key is to take control of the situation without taking control from people. In Stoker’s words, it may sound like this: “I have the ultimate decision on this, but I am interested in your perspectives. Who wants to go first?”
This earns their respect because only confident people are open to the possibility that someone else might have a better idea.
Perhaps the worst situation to face at work is an utter failure of some sort. Your impulse will be to make excuses, especially when you have good ones to offer – insufficient resources, a factional department or even a problem outside of work. But making excuses “makes you look weak,” Rockwell says. “It makes you look fearful and defensive. Just don’t do it.”
The military uses After Action Reports, or AARs, to analyze both successful and failed initiatives. They restate the original objectives – or, as Rockwell puts it, “What was supposed to happen,” and relate in detail what actually happened. The goal is to identify systemic and performance problems, areas for improvement, and recommendations based on lessons learned. So as not to make the same mistakes, it’s a good idea to perform this type of analysis, Rockwell says, but in the immediate aftermath the key message to communicate is that the team missed the mark and will evaluate what went wrong: “We’ll get to the bottom of this and it won’t happen again.”
Unlike excuses, such assurances “make you look strong and optimistic,” Rockwell says.
Choosing the right words is not always easy, he says, but a mouth that speaks kindness seldom has a foot in it.