How to Say It: Managers and Tone

You can take all the right actions as a manager – set goals and hold people accountable to them, delegate clearly, check in regularly, give useful feedback, hire great people, and so forth – but the tone that you use with your staff in doing all of this can radically change how people perceive you, as well as their receptivity to you.

Even with two managers who in theory are doing all of the same things, the manager who acknowledges her own mistakes, shows compassion in tough situations, and shares the big issues she’s wrestling with is likely to have a staff who’s far more invested in working with her – and more receptive to hearing tough messages when they need to, too.

Here’s what that can look like in practice:

Don’t… Do…
contradict earlier instructions, without acknowledging it “I know this is different from what I told you earlier, and that’s because….”
ask someone to redo work without acknowledging that you didn’t give them clear direction originally “I know I didn’t give you clear direction on this earlier. Now that I see it, I realize that I should have said…”
ask for work to be redone without explaining your thought process “I’m wrestling with the content on pages 2-3 because…”
delegate work without giving staff members an opportunity for input “I’d love for you to think about the best way to make this happen and propose a plan of attack.”
announce a decision as a done deal without room for pushback “Here’s what I’m thinking, but I want you to push back if you disagree.” Or, “I’d love for you to poke holes in this if you see them.”
make most decisions without getting input from your team “I’m in ‘test’ mode with this and would love your thoughts on whether you think this would work and what if anything might make it stronger.”
chastise someone for a mistake without first inquiring about what went wrong “I’m concerned that this went to the printer with a mistake on the back cover. What happened?”
cavalierly announce that people will need to work over the weekend because of a last-minute project “I’m so sorry to ask, but we’ve got to get this done before Monday morning. Could you squeeze in some time on it this weekend?”
respond harshly when someone shares feedback that you strongly disagree with or makes you feel defensive “I’m not sure I see it the same way, but I’m glad you shared your take with me. The way I look at it is…”
reject an idea without explanation “I love that you’re thinking about this kind of thing. In this case, I’m not sure it makes sense as a priority because ___, but it’s a good thought.”

If you’re looking for general principles to pull out, here are a few that might be useful:

  • Admit it when you’ve been less than perfect.
  • Share what’s in your head, and be transparent when you’re uncertain about something.
  • Acknowledge when what you’re asking is hard or inconvenient.
  • When you have a concern about a staff member’s performance, don’t assume the worse. Instead, assume you might not have the whole story and start from a place of seeking more information.
  • Express appreciation when people go above and beyond.
  • Genuinely seek out and welcome input.