There is an undeniable truth around communication: people hear what they want to hear.
Then there is the other truth about human behaviour. When undertaking a tricky conversation with a staff member, many managers are tempted to ‘soften the blow’ with something that could sound like a promise but is actually not meant as a promise. For example:
What is said:
‘Don’t worry your turn will come soon’ (referring to promotion, holiday over Christmas, chance to choose biscuits at the next team meeting).
What is heard is:
‘The next promotion/holiday choice/biscuits selection will be mine!’
The manager will walk away having forgotten what was just said as a passing, placatory comment but the individual will remember. In fact, it may be engraved on their heart. Even worse, they will go and tell colleagues, ‘The next promotion is mine!’
So, when promotion time comes round and they’re not in the running, someone else gets Christmas Eve off or custard creams make an unwelcome appearance on the meeting room table yet again, you can expect some emotional reactions. If you are lucky the staff member will challenge you with ‘But I thought…’ What is far more common is that the staff member will not challenge you, they will merely:
- Seethe inwardly and hate you
- Lose trust in you and view whatever you say in the future with scepticism
- Start developing conspiracy theories around a system of favourites
- Disengage from you, the team and their work
- Lose respect for you and see you as a liar and a manipulator
That sounds bad. But it gets worse. Because if just one person thought that way it would be contained but aggrieved people rarely stay silent. They spread their discontent to whoever is willing to listen and if they meet someone else who is angry about a promise that did not come through then you have trouble.
As a manager you need to be very, very careful about anything that could sound like a promise. That does not mean you should avoid making promises but they need to considered carefully, and presented using the right language and with truthful conditions. For instance, ‘If x happens, I hope to be able to be in a position to offer you y’. Follow up any such promises in writing, as again human beings have the habit of hearing the promise, not the conditions.
And if you ever feel cornered over an issue then simply keep repeating, ‘I hear what you are saying but I will not give a promise I cannot truthfully honour. I need to consider the situation before providing you with any promises that I will need to keep’.
Do not be a cheap throwaway manager. Be a person of your word.