Monday, October 03, 2005

The Non-intuitive Manager: The Semantic Weight & Half-Life of Words

[You might wish to read the Introduction to the Series before you proceed...]

Words matter. A lot.

How you phrase something makes a big difference, especially when you're talking to people who are technically your subordinates. Now, this may seem like the most obvious statement in the world, but it's surprising how often it's forgotten.

What we tend to forget is that when the boss speaks, his words are mined quite intensely for subtleties and hidden meanings by his subordinates. A simple "Hello" might send some of your more insecure underlings into a panicky tizzy. Now this might seem unfair to you, but that's just the way things are. Human nature isn't slated to change anytime soon, so you might as well get used to it, bugs and all.

The problem is a basic one of power. The bossman has it, the wage-slave doesn't. The managers whims directly impact the average workers life in measurable ways, while things don't quite work vice-versa. It isn't surprising then that the communication flowing from the top is analysed much more obsessively than you expected it to be.

In other words (HA!) we need to examine...

The semantic weight and half-life of words

Description: You words and opinions, even ones joking expressed, are examined much more deeply for nuances than you'd like. Often, your subordinates build-up their stances or expectations on utterances which were hasty, or meant to be taken lightly. What seemed like banter to you, was taken as a reprimand; or your flippant remark about a company product has made people treat it lightly.

The Problem: People are apprehensive in nature. Real or perceived power resides in you in this relationship, not them. In addition, you're looked at to provide leadership and direction. People will emulate your stances and align their positions to the ones they think you hold. In addition, there's no expiry date on words, so something you said 6 months ago may still be shaping the teams perceptions about itself, the product or the company, long after the situation has changed.

A Possible Solution: Being aware of the issue is halfway to solving it. You have to be very careful with what you say. Your heart should be behind your tongue, as it's sometimes put, not before it. There's no need to be fake, or a bland, emotionless robot. Joke and josh around with your team with abandon, but remember the limits. Don't put anyone down, even in jest and never denigrate an in-house product or another team.

Having to be so careful may seem like an over-reaction.

But words matter. A lot.

1 comment:

frankr said...

That's especially true if you're working with women. Ask married guys, they know that each word counts. You can even get into trouble for not having said the right word when you were supposed to.