Words have power: Use them carefully - Michelle Gibbings

Thanks to, in this article Michelle discusses the more senior you are in an organisation, the more you have to watch that your often casual remarks do not have unintended consequences.

When you’re a leader, a casual remark, an off-hand comment, or a request can have more impact than you think or perhaps even intend.

Many years ago, a colleague recounted an incident that is a stark illustration of this.

A group of employees was in a room often used for client and staff events. The CEO was there too. In a casual conversation, the CEO made a passing reference to the room colour and that it wasn’t appealing. That off-hand comment was interpreted as a directive. So, over the weekend, painters came in and repainted the suite of rooms.

Now, you may laugh (I certainly did) and scratch your heading –That’s ridiculous. Yes, you are correct. Yet, things like this happen all the time.

I’ve seen situations where leaders are interested in something but have no idea of the amount of work required in their request. If they had known, they wouldn’t have asked for it.

As a leader, your words have power. A simple comment can cause consternation. A remark can leave a negative impact. What you see as a simple request can disrupt workflow and send shockwaves through the organisation.

Perhaps, you are interested in seeing data presented differently or having a report written in a particular style. However, the organisation’s systems make data manipulation incredibly time-consuming, and the writing style means the whole report needs rewriting.

Daily, leaders cause mountains and mountains of work and, in cases, rework. Undoubtedly, some of this is justified and valuable, but do you stop and question?

When you ask for something, is it in the ‘nice to have’ or ‘essential’ category? Are you aware of the impact that your request has on individuals and the workload of teams?

Organisational hierarchies are the very definition of power structures. Typically, the further up the leadership totem pole a person resides, the more power they have. However, sometimes, it is easy for leaders to forget their level of power and their impact.

It’s crucial, therefore, to be aware of the impact of your words and your requests.

When you are making a request, consider:

  • Is this work necessary and reasonable?
  • What’s the impact it will (or could) have on other underway or planned work?
  • How is this request prioritised against other work?
  • Does the team have the resources, systems, processes and capability to fulfil this request?

If you answer ‘no’ or ‘not sure’ to any of those questions, there is homework you need to do before you send out the request.

You also want to consider the culture and workplace environment you have created.

Is it ok for your direct reports to say ‘no’ or question your request? If psychological safety is absent, you may get a yes to your request, with negative ramifications. You may also end up with completed work that you didn’t expect (or want) or work delivered that doesn’t meet expectations or needs.

It helps to consider the clarity you provide with comments and requests. What processes do you and your team use to ensure your team understands what’s required and when? At the outset, discussing the context, scope, priorities, outcomes, expectations and benefits of the work is essential to minimise the need for rounds and rounds of rework.

In the working day, there is often never enough time to get everything done, and so being conscious of the impact of your words and requests isn’t in the ‘nice to have’ category, it’s ‘essential’. So remember the wise words of the Roman Stoic Philosopher Seneca who said, “He who has great power should use it lightly“.

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