It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It
Match your content with your intent
“My strength is the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.” — Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1842
Did you ever plan a conversation in your mind, carefully mapping out your words and anticipating the response — a scene that a scriptwriter would envy — only to have the actual conversation go completely sideways?
Maybe you botched your opening or awkwardly stumbled over words after hearing a reply.
And in the end, you made the situation worse despite your sincere desire to improve it.
You obscured your good motives with your poor execution.
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Part of being a leader is making difficult decisions. Decisions that can impact the lives and livelihood of your people.
And the way you execute your decisions makes the difference between looking like an ogre or an empathetic leader.
Such as when Elon Musk, upset that advertisers were fleeing the platform because of concerns about brand safety, tweeted “A thermonuclear name & shame is exactly what will happen if this continues.”
Twitter has been in need of an overhaul, and Elon Musk seems to be the one to do it (just ask him), but once again, the way he’s going about making these changes is unnecessarily chaotic and cruel.
Over the weekend, 80 percent of the contract staff at Twitter discovered they had been fired. While reducing headcount may be necessary, it’s the way their termination was handled that’s questionable.
Casey Newton’s Platformer reported:
Unlike Twitter’s full-time employees, who at least got the courtesy of an email informing them that layoffs were coming a night before, contractors received nothing. Neither did their managers, who discovered one by one over the weekend that people they had been counting on to perform critical tasks had suddenly disappeared from the company’s systems.
“One of my contractors just got deactivated without notice in the middle of making critical changes to our child safety workflows," one manager noted in the company’s Slack channels. This is particularly worrisome because Twitter has for years struggled to adequately police child sexual exploitation material on the platform, as we previously reported.
Some of them found because they lost access to Slack and email; others discovered through public tweets that it would be their last day and that their healthcare coverage was ending that day as well.
One employee wrote:
“In 2 weeks Twitter has gone from being the most welcoming and healthy workplace I’ve ever known to the most openly hostile and degrading I’ve ever known.”
It doesn’t have to be this way.
People can (and should) be treated with dignity and respect: the hallmark of leader humility, which Marilyn Gist defined on our Timeless Leadership podcast as “the tendency to feel and display deep regard for others’ dignity.”
Gray Flannel Dignity
When I read Sloan Wilson’s bestseller The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit — the precursor to Mad Men — I was struck with a marvelous scene that was a masterclass in delivering difficult news to an employee in a way that made him eager to improve.
The book is set in the 1950s and the protagonist, Tom Rath, has returned from war and trying to settle in. He gets a job as special assistant to Ralph Hopkins, president of a TV network, who one day asked him write him a speech.
Tom put in a first effort, handing his draft to Bill Ogden, Hopkins’ a consistently dour and curt right-hand man. He was the type who had to insert himself in order to prove his worth. After reading Rath’s first draft, Ogden's response was:
“Christ! This is awful! It isn’t what we want at all! You can do better than this!”
Not knowing exactly what Ogden meant, Rath didn’t make any changes before turning it in to Hopkins. The boss invited him in and gave him the following feedback:
“Marvelous. You’ve really got the feel for it! This really sings. The heart of the thing is just right! Now let’s just go over it together.”
At which point, Hopkins takes the entire speech apart, sentence by sentence before sending Rath on his way, saying,
“You certainly did a grand job! Just fix up the details we’ve worked out and let’s see it again in a few days.”
Rath was halfway to Grand Central Station before he fully realized that Ogden and Hopkins had simply told him the same thing in two different ways: to rewrite the speech.
But here’s the difference: Hopkins’ approach left Tom eager to try.
During the following week, Rath had to rewrite the speech four times, each time getting the same set of reactions.
He was sure he would have quit in discouragement if it hadn’t been for Hopkins’ praise, which grew in warmth over each successive draft, but somehow never failed to sound sincere.
Words aside, it was the demeanor of these two superiors that made all the difference.
Ogden seemed to be annoyed, as if Rath’s work was inconveniencing him. His curt attitude and abruptness exuded contempt.
Hopkins invited Tom to his apartment to review the speech over drinks. He was reassuring at every turn, even when delivering bad news. Rather than just critiquing the words, he boosted Rath’s self-confidence and complimented him in the process.
Tom Rath didn’t have a problem with the task; he had a problem with how his direct supervisor exercised his authority.
Good leaders want results.
Great leaders want to inspire people to contribute.
You can have the best intention in the world for your employees. But if they can’t see or hear it, it won’t matter.
The difference isn’t in what you say, but in how you say it.
You’ll be respected not for what you do, but for how you do it.
A reader wrote to ask about soliciting feedback from a team and the need to cull the feedback without offending people whose suggestions were discarded. Make sure you’re subscribed to read the advice I gave her.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.