Leaders want to make their mark on operations, stamp their philosophical footprint on minds, leave their legacy on hearts and in hallways. They hope their leadership will be unique, profitable, and pleasant. Understandable goals.
All too often, however, they start out with similar comments—lines that set their employees up for disappointment and disengagement rather than the intended positive pat on the back and productivity boost:
1. “Tell me if I’m wrong, but here’s what I’m thinking.” While it’s admirable to ask for input, the problem here is phrasing. Who wants to start off a new relationship with the boss with this response: “Well, boss, actually, here’s where you’re wrong….” Better to ask for input in these ways: “I’d like you input on a few ideas….” “Here’s what I’m thinking as a way to handle X… Your thoughts on that issue?” “I’m about to make a couple of changes in the way we do X. What am I missing here?”
2. “Give me your wish list—as if money were no object.” Generally tossed out during strategic planning meetings or staff retreats, this comment meant to start a brainstorming exercise sounds like such a generous gesture. The new leader wants input on needs—what new resources do they need to get the job done faster or better. Equipment? Tools? More people? Space?
The problem with this goodwill line? Money is always an object—even when you have plenty of it. Even if venture capitalists have just dropped $200 million in your pocket, you’ll have to justify why one project gets funded and another does not. When new manager after new manager arrives and encourages people to “dream big,” but there’s no basis for thinking the Fairy Godmother will fund the dream, this approach becomes tiresome.
3. “I’d like us to blow this up, and try to rebuild it from the ground up.” For all our complaining, most of us become attached to our work. We take pride in our achievements. Yes, we’re open to progress, change, improvements, growth. But to have a new leader walk in and talk about “rebuilding” implies that what has gone before has become worthless. Many employees consider it arrogance for a new leader to walk in and start “change for change’s sake” actions before he or she knows what’s what and why what’s what.
Whether you’re talking about processes, procedures, or products, phrasing counts. Modify, maybe. Improve, probably. But “rebuild” will most often meet resistance.
4. “Let’s just put everything on hold until I get a better understanding.” What does “on hold” mean? Literally stop work? Stop planning? Stop doing? Stop funding? Stop signing contracts? Notify all departments/people related to the project? For how long? Do what in the meantime? What if “this” is my primary job at the moment? This comment sets up a major logjam, with the boss blocking workflow.
5. “Check back with me before we make any final commitment on that.” This directive has the same effect as number 4—a bottleneck while productivity decreases to a spurt here and there. The only difference here is fear generated by the comment. Unlike that in number 4 “until I get a better understanding,” employees may fear this check-back directive suggests the leader’s ongoing management style: closely-held reins with little room for personal initiative and decision-making.
If the line sounds too familiar, skip it. You’ve heard it before—and so have your team members. Your communication during those first few weeks as a new leader makes a critical difference in connecting with employees and winning their trust and confidence.