A Simple Change: Drop the “Should’s”

Imagine you are an employee whose work is careless and usually late.  How do you respond to each of the following messages from your supervisor?

Supervisor A:  “I want to discuss my expectations for your work.  First, you should start paying more attention to your work product: it’s full of typos, incorrect calculations, and unclear sentences.  You shouldn’t turn it in to me unless you have proofread it twice. Second, you also need to get it to me on time.  It’s not acceptable to get it to me two days late.  Am I being clear?”

Supervisor B:  “I want to discuss my expectations for your work.  First, it’s important that you pay more attention to your work product, which tends to have typos, incorrect calculations, and unclear sentences. Second, it’s also important that you get your work to me on time, not two days late.  What can we do to ensure that you are able to meet these expectations?  One suggestion I have is that you proofread your work twice before turning it in.  What else might work?”

Both supervisors are saying the same thing and neither is being inappropriate or abusive.  Yet, most people would far rather get the message from Supervisor B.  Why?  For two main reasons.  Rather than giving directives, Supervisor B is using coaching language , e.g., “What can we do . . .?”  A coaching approach often produces a less defensive employee and better results.  As noted in an earlier post, one component of effective coaching is to ask open ended “what” questions. 

Equally importantly, Supervisor B does not use terms such as “you should” “you have to” or “you need to.”  This is central,  because for better or for worse, these terms are psychologically loaded, often raising feelings of obligation, guilt, and right vs. wrong.  

Think of an obligation and couch it in terms of “I should do X every week” or “I have to do Y regularly.”  Now reframe it using more positive words such as “I want to do X every week” or “It’s important to do Y regularly.”  It can be transformative: instead of feeling like an obligation or burden, it feels like a positive choice. 

In the workplace setting, avoiding use of the word “should” (and its cousins “have to” and “need to”) can be similarly transformative.  When Supervisor B says “it’s important,” he or she is using a neutral word without negative connotations. It has the added benefit of communicating that there is a reason for the request.  It also, in some subtle way, communicates that the supervisor and the employee are a team working on matters of common interest. “It’s important …” is one way to reframe the message; many others work as well. 

Avoiding “should” is a simple change that can bring about significant improvements in workplace communication.  Do you have any other magic bullets ?   ~Amy Stephson

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