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Top 5 unintended messages that crush careers. It’s not what you say, it is what is heard that matters

Intent vs. impact

Effective communication (in Corporate America)

As a guy working in HR, effective communication matters. I need to be careful with what I do and say. As much as the rules and policies apply to everyone, they apply more to the people in HR. When the team that is supposed to make sure company policy is maintained is breaking the rules, it hard to hold credibility.

Effective communication boils down to intent vs. impact

It isn’t what I do or what I say, it is what the employees see me do and what they hear me say that matters. Regardless of good intentions, my actions and words are open to interpretation. It doesn’t matter what I say, it only matters what is heard. It doesn’t matter what I do, all that matters is what folks see.   

Held to a higher standard 

With this in mind, today’s post points out potential differences in what we say and what is heard. I want to share a few ways I try to encourage trust and teamwork. This is especially true when the words are coming out of Johnny Law HR who is already viewed with skepticism and mistrust.

The goal of this blog post is to show how these interpretations are not just extrapolated from the folks in HR. They are also left to interpretation by:

  • Executives who are viewed as the authority of a particular discipline
  • Leaders, managers, or employees with seniority
  • Employees who are on a Personal Improvement Plan
  • Individual contributors who are potentially up for a raise, promotion, or new opportunity
  • Candidates in an interview

It isn’t just the HR policy makers that are under scrutiny. We all fall under scrutiny. So today I provide a few phrases to marinate on when you are communicating with anyone inside, or outside of work. 

As often as possible, I like to present an attitude where the cup is half full vs. the cup is half empty. Below I share examples of phrases commonly heard in corporate American that represents the cup half empty. This is not effective communication and can subconsciously create doubt. I also present the cup half full version which will not create any disturbance in the force. These phrases maintain momentum when pitching ideas, interviewing for a job, or working with teams. A presentation with glass half full moments doesn’t create or maintain momentum.  

effective communication

Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty, thinker? Most employees don’t care for half-empty.

You vs. we

When helping someone else to solve a problem, effective communication makes a big difference. It is very easy to fall into the trap that this is “their” problem and NOT “our” problem. The following are statements that emphasize the problem is “theirs”. These statements sound like accusations vs. an offer to help:

  • “If you don’t follow this procedure” 
  • “If you didn’t do that” 
  • “When you did this, it broke” can sound like “You broke it.”
  • “You are stupid, that will never work” can sound like “YOU ARE STUPID”

One easy way to signal we are BOTH trying to solve the same problem (and are on the same team) is by substituting the word “You” with the word “We”.

The above sentences sound much different and set a different tone:

  • “When WE do this”
  • “If WE hadn’t done that”
  • “When WE did this, it broke”
  • “WE are both stupid, that will never work”
  • “We should try this”

The above statements signal “we” are on the same team. I really appreciate hearing these types of statements in an interview. When a candidate uses the word “we” vs. “you guys”, I get the feeling that I am talking with a team player.

Manager vs. Boss

This one will probably cause some controversy, but as an HR person, it is a signal to me when a manager refers to their team as any of the following:

  • “Employees below me”
  • “My team”
  • “These are my people”
  • “My direct report”

Employees are not servants. In my 20 years of experience, I have found that most individual contributors know who they report to and don’t need to be reminded in a demeaning manner. The following statements encourage an attitude of equality vs. one of hierarchy. 

  • “Employees around me” vs. “Employees under me” 
  • “Our team” vs. “My team”
  • “Our employees” vs. “My employees”

I completely realize most companies are a hierarchy but do I need to be reminded of my place in this particular manner?

“I want to introduce you to MY employee” vs. “May I introduce you to my colleague?

How someone introduces a colleague is a reflection of the person making the introduction. This type of introduction comes from the person that needs to establish who is in charge of whom. The second introduction set a tone of equality. Regardless of the difference in seniority, age or experience, I just really appreciate the introduction using the word “colleague”. The first introduction smacks of a guy I knew who, after meeting you, would shake your hand and say:

“That’s a firm handshake you have, just like the mechanic who works on my Ferrari”

Do we really need to establish who’s who in the zoo within the first 3 seconds of meeting?

“I am going to “LET “John Smith talk about our next subject” vs. “I am going to “ASK” John Smith to talk about our next subject”

When I watch a presentation with multiple speakers, it always seems like a weird transition when the next speaker is “given permission” to speak. “You are going to LET me talk????” I think the transition between speakers is much more seamless and shows a stronger team dynamic when we “Ask John Smith to speak”.

Are you creating possibility or crushing it?

“We can’t” vs. “We can, if. . . .”

The “Can’t” attitude will be the biggest blocker to landing your name in the promotion hat.  Replying to an idea or request with “I can’t” or “We can’t do that.” is a Career Limiting Move. When you think about it, humans have built pyramids and put men on the moon. Unless you are working at Blue Origin or NASA, you aren’t going to be asked to put a man on the moon and OH, Guess The F*&%$ What peoples? We have put a people on the moon and we are going to put more people on the moon. If you haven’t seen the Ridley Scott movie “The Martian” with Matt Damon, I highly recommend it. This guy did not have the word “can’t” in his vocabulary and kept a sense of humor. 

Instead of saying “I can’t”, try “We can if we do XY and Z”. Or “We can. if I can get some help with XY and Z.”

“We Can “if” “, is a much better way of saying “I can’t”. Managers, leaders, vendors, and clients want people who CAN. They don’t want people who can’t.

“Can’t” is just an indicator that we are a too lazy to figure out how we “Can”

Are you an American or an American’t  (Is that an OK to ask that question?)

I partner with a team of two people on a very regular basis. Over time, I have stopped asking one of the folks for any assistance because I always get pushback. A typical response to a request for help is, “I am really busy right now” followed by a deep sigh. The other member of the department is always open-minded to new projects and his usual answer is “Now isn’t the best time, but IF this afternoon works, I can get started then.  This guy uses the word “if” and he also receives a LOT more opportunity.

“They won’t” vs. “They might, if”

As a career coach, I hear a lot of assumptions that include the word “won’t”. This is very similar to the word “can’t” in my mind. On a regular basis I hear the following:

  • “My manager won’t go for that idea.”
  • “My department won’t have the budget.”
  • “The Accounting department won’t listen to me.”

The assumption that NOTHING will happen, results in the employee not even trying. This is bad for the employee’s career and bad for the company. Instead, try thinking a little differently. 

  • “My manager might go for this idea IF we suggest. . . “
  • “The department might come up with the budget IF we do. . . .”
  • “The Accounting department might listen to us IF. . ..

Effective communication can make a difference in your business proposals and your career. It’s not what we say, but how we say it.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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