Before becoming a leadership consultant, and while in my corporate career, I relied upon others working in this important field for sage advice. One can liken these practitioners to “workplace psychologists,” offering must-have leadership tips, whether through one-on-one coaching or team building, all with the aim of improving workplace relationships, motivation, and productivity. Through the use of assessment tools, be they 360-degree performance evaluations, and/or workplace style assessments, each provides a window into how others perceive one another: in this case, yours truly. I learned skills and received thoughtful – if not painful at times – information about how others saw me, which enables me today to understand how others might feel when receiving feedback and to be empathetic when debriefing a 360-degree recipient: as the saying goes “been there, done that, got the T-shirt, wore it, ripped it up and burned it.”
Based upon this personal experience, and when giving individual feedback on a 360, I often compare the recipient’s reactions to the workplace corollary of Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief, as found in her landmark book Death and Dying. The five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, are part of the framework that makes it possible to live with loss. These feelings routinely emerge when an individual hears how others perceive him or her in the workplace.
I certainly can attest to having felt the following:
- Denial – “I bet I know who said that: she doesn’t like me.”
- Anger – “They don’t understand me;” or, “How unforgiving – they of all people should know how much work I have and how much stress I’m under.”
- Bargaining – “This comment (or these comments) are outliers, coming from someone who I disciplined so it’s only a personal vendetta.”
- Depression – “How can I face my colleagues – they all hate me.”
- Acceptance – “Well, I guess that is how I am perceived and perception is reality. I am the one and only one with the power to change how others perceive me, by adjusting my workplace actions. I will do it!”
Words or Phrases to Consider Avoiding and Why
Some of the feedback I received, which allowed me to turn it around was the need to avoid the use of absolutist words and superlatives while communicating. I used some of the words and phrases that follow; while I find others I have worked with, used different ones. The chart depicts a sampling of commonly used superlatives and absolutes in everyday communication, and how others perceive them.
Common Themes – The Communicatee’s Perceptions Regardless of the Communicator’s Intent
- There is only one way to do things. . . and, it’s my way.
- There is no need to think, exercise independent judgment, or be creative.
- I am empowered and you need to do what I’m saying.
- The person who is communicating is “right,” “correct,” or “faultless.”
- The person communicated with is “wrong,” “incorrect,” or “flawed.”
- The person communicated with is being judged by the communicator, and likely falls short.
Consider Rephrasing the Superlatives and Absolutes in Everyday Communication
This time the chart will add a third column of words or phrases to consider substituting, all to achieve the goal of countering the (unintended) perceptions.
Recapping – Rethinking and Rephrasing Absolutes in Everyday Communication, or the Use of Superlatives
Certainly, when I was the communicator using absolutist words, phrases, and superlatives, my intent was not to communicate my superior knowledge, that I was right and others were wrong, or to close down ideas from others. When I received the feedback, I went through the five stages of “workplace grief,” finally concluding that I was the “captain of my ship,” and by thinking first, and rephrasing my language second, I could and would invite others to participate, use their creativity, and take the risk to contribute their ideas. In short, to empower others. And, it worked!
Similarly, as a coach, facilitator, team-builder, and leadership consultant today, I have encouraged others to do the same. Nothing succeeds like success, as the saying goes, and many have turned around their style from one of “telling” to “listening and asking.” Give it a try; it might work for you, too.