Throwaway Comments Aren't, Really – Allegory Inc.

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Throwaway Comments Aren’t, Really

By Christina Harbridge

This is the third installment in a series on Irrational Habits, the very human stuff that messes with our desired outcomes. So far, we’ve covered eclipsing outcomes with feelings and crowdsourcing discontent. Let’s talk about another common habit: using broad, sweeping statements when we’re frustrated, angry, or otherwise triggered. These seemingly casual, throwaway comments are anything but and can seriously mess with our outcomes. How so? Here are some common examples:

  • “We suck at execution.” A leader may consider this harmless venting, but other people hear that they suck. It’s natural for people to become resistant in a situation like this, so their listening often ends as soon as that broad, sweeping sentence does. Language like this rarely makes individuals realize they need to change their behavior, not least because it’s too vague to act on.
  • Our teams don’t know how to work together.” or “Engineering doesn’t know what they are doing.” If organizational outcomes depend on collaboration, these types of sentences reduce commitment and performance. They can feel like insulting attacks on character. And other people can use a leader’s broad, sweeping statements as a convenient excuse for their own poor performance. “It isn’t my fault, it’s engineering’s fault” can live on as a refrain long after the leader has said it.
  • “I don’t care if people quit. They don’t want to work, anyway.” This one comes up a lot in our current Great Resignation context. When managers don’t care if people quit, they reduce their focus on leadership behaviors that retain talent. Talented people may start looking for opportunity elsewhere, or quit in terms of committed performance while still on the payroll.
  • “Be careful what you ask for.” or ““I am surrounded by losers and lazy people!” Language intended to punish or warn others can be a form of self-sabotage, in that leaders scare people away from them and/or new things that person wanted to try. Broad, sweeping warning language puts people on guard. People can come to feel so badly about themselves when they are around leaders who speak this way, that they resist better performance and success long after words like this were said.

Here are three simple practices to keep language aligned with outcomes:

Practice #1
Avoid superlatives, hyperbole, and vague buzzwords.

Avoid applying negative, general statements to a group of people. Notice if you are speaking in buzzwords and get more concrete. Using specific language when giving feedback, for example, is a great way to practice moving away from broad, sweeping statements. Notice when you use a superlative (or are about to), and instead use a specific example with detail.

Instead of saying, “Great job, Casey!” try something like, “Casey, you nailed that choice of video for the campaign. You also did a great job pushing back on the CEO to get sign-off on it today.”

“Great job, Casey!” is nice and all, but it leaves Casey to decide what the great thing was, which may not be the same thing you thought was great. Vague language also doesn’t help Casey identify and repeat the great behavior in the future, because Casey doesn’t necessarily know exactly what is worth repeating. And frankly, superlatives rarely leave Casey feeling appreciated.

Likewise, saying “Casey, you lost all credibility in that meeting.” is something that can mess with Casey for a long time afterward. From this vague statement, Casey cannot tell what words or actions led to a loss in credibility, which also prevents Casey from correcting it. By contrast, telling Casey what, specifically, went wrong — “Hey, Casey, you mentioned that the CEO seemed defensive in that meeting, yet you interrupted her three times.” — is specific feedback that you and Casey can discuss.

Practice #2
Ask for examples when receiving broad statements or buzzwords.

Listen for broad, sweeping statements too. People often give feedback or direction that is vague and ambiguous. When you are on the receiving end of vague make sure you understand what someone else is saying to you. Ask for examples.

Let’s say a client says, “Your team could improve communication.” What does that really mean? You may think you need to talk more while your client thinks you should talk lessAsk for examples so that you can understand and have enough information to act on in the future.

Practice #3
The broad, sweeping statements in our heads are clues to help us make better decisions.

If we can “hear” ourselves thinking in broad, sweeping statements, then we can notice when we are frustrated or upset and do fewer “outcome reducing” behaviors while we’re having that sort of reaction. “Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance,” Albert Maysles once said. We can notice the tyranny hijacking our minds, pause before verbalizing it, and get closer to understanding our own BS.

For example, Pat thinks, “This client doesn’t know how to prioritize!” If Pat stops for a moment and gets curious about that broad, sweeping statement, they delay both decision-making and communication with the client. Pat can get curious about the specific example driving the thought, then do something concrete about it. By doing so, any email Pat sends will be more clear and less snarky.  

Be more tangible.

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