Issue Number 38: Great Leaders Choose Their Conversations Carefully

Choosing conversations carefully may sound easy, but it requires intention and discipline. It means putting aside your needs and realizing everything you say and do makes a lasting impression.

This is especially challenging when you are stressed, or when you are focused on task, like the Green Heron in this picture. Sometimes you are so busy you can forget the importance of nurturing trust in every moment. Here are three examples of how the conversations you choose can have the same effect on task and dramatically different effects on trust.

The Scene: The hero (played brilliantly by you) is in your office scrambling madly to meet a deadline. Bill, your direct report, has worked hard to downselect eight alternative strategies to two. He knocks on your door and says: “I’ve narrowed it down to two choices, A and B. Do you have a moment?”

The last thing you need right now is an interruption, and the first two thoughts that come to your mind are: “I don’t care – you decide!” and “It’s your job to decide these things – not mine!”

You have a choice about the conversation you will have with Bill. The key to making the right choice depends on understanding the difference between the urgent and the important. Let’s play out the scene three different ways and see the effects of the conversation on both task and trust.

Take 1: If you give voice to your first thought and say: “I don’t care – you decide.” Bill will go back to his office and make a decision, but on his way he will be muttering: “Well, if you don’t care, I don’t care!” The task will be completed (Bill will decide), but you will have lost an opportunity to nurture trust with Bill.

Take 2: This time you say: “It’s your job – you decide.” Bill will decide, but he’ll be muttering: “He has the nerve to tell me what my job is! Who does he think he is?” Again – the task will be completed and the opportunity to nurture trust will be lost.

Let’s try it again with a slight change in wording. Think about what is urgent and what is important, and about the message you want to send to Bill.

Take 3: Instead of saying the first two things on your mind, try saying something like: “I trust your judgment – you decide.” This is a seemingly slight difference in the choice of words, and you might be tempted to think it doesn’t matter much, but it can make a huge difference.

You will have the same result on task (Bill will decide), but this time he’ll be saying: “The boss is really smart – he trusts my judgment!” Every time he sees your face or hears your voice, it will remind him you trust his judgment, and you won’t have to do a thing to make it happen.

Keep in mind, however, if you say it you have to live it. You cannot tell Bill you trust his judgment if you don’t feel that way. Equally important, you cannot tell Bill you trust his judgment on Monday and throw him under the bus on Tuesday. You have to be willing to keep your word and back him up.

One of the best leaders I have ever known was Ed Knowles. Ed often reminded us that he trusted our judgment in making difficult decisions. If the result was positive, we would receive the credit, and if the result was negative he would take the blame.

Ed demonstrated what another of my favorite writers, Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion calls “the rule of reciprocation.” Ed gave us something of immense value first – his trust – and we gave him something of value in return – our loyalty. I am still passing along his legacy.

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