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Avoid this leadership mistake: Your team listens to your word too closely

When the boss speaks, people listen… too much. Here are two phrases to counteract this common leadership pitfall.

Watch the ears perk up. The boss says something, and folks become extra attentive. It’s not a leadership mistake they’re making on purpose – it’s the unintentional by product of being the boss.

All of sudden, someone underlines a phrase in their notebook because the boss mentioned it. Another person make a mental note that project X, which the boss briefly touched on, should get bumped up in the priority list.

Whether we realize it consciously or not, the owner’s word weighs a ton, as precisely put by Basecamp CEO Jason Fried.

What’s most frustrating as a leader, is trying to figure out what you should do about this. It’s not a leadership mistake you’re making on purpose – it’s the unintentional by product of being the boss. How do you get your team to understand they shouldn’t heed your word so mightily — without undermining your own point of view, or handcuffing yourself from being candid in what you say? Does this mean you can never vocalize a strong position, or ask a pointed question?

Laura Roeder, CEO of MeetEdgar (a company she bootstrapped to $4MM ARR in 2.5 years) wrestled with this herself, firsthand. She admitted to me:

“It can be easy not to realize how powerful a side comment from me as the leader/CEO/founder going “Oh, I don’t know about that,” to someone else can read as “Laura has vetoed this, this will never happen,” when maybe I mean like, “Why don’t you flesh that out more?” But I need to say that explicitly.”

For Laura, this was her biggest leadership lesson learned: As the boss, your word is often interpreted as the word of god. And, the best way to offset the weight of your word is to explicitly tell people know what your word is not.

It’s a deceptively simple solution — but it works. Your team internalizes your word so strongly because you aren’t telling them otherwise. The default assumption they’re operating under is, “My boss’ word matters.” In many ways, it’s a good, respectful, even admirable thing. But because it can be dangerous when applied blindly, we as leaders have got to make things clear: “My word isn’t the word of god. It’s one perspective, one person’s thought. My word as a leader should not matter as much as you think it does.”

We can’t expect folks to infer that an opinion of ours is, well, just an opinion. We’ve got to say outright, “This is an opinion.” That’s it.

Here are two phrases that Laura rigorously uses, in particular, to avoid the leadership mistake of her word being leaned on too heavily:

“Make this decision without me.”

“Make this decision without me,” encourages your team stop looking over their shoulders, circling back to you for approval as a knee-jerk reaction. When you state this clearly, you give explicit permission to make the call without fear of repercussion. You can follow this up by saying “I don’t need to see this” or “Don’t show this to me” to further emphasize that it’s your team that should be owning a specific decision — not you.

“This is not urgent.”

This second phrase, “This is not urgent” is handy when you’re curious about something random, say a report or a statistic. Laura told me that when she asks off-handedly about a report or statistic, she’ll even write, “THIS IS NOT IMPORTANT! THIS IS NOT URGENT!” in all caps in the email. While seemingly hyperbolic or over-the-top in the moment — it’s effective. Laura said how doing so has truly helped make sure her team doesn’t prioritize things they shouldn’t. You’re providing the context your team needs to figure out where your request fits in the broader scope of what they should be focused on. Without it, they assume you mean “ASAP.”

Both phrases slow down your team’s impulse to react to your word on a whim. While the perking up of the ears and underlining in the notes may still happen, you put the decision back in the hands of your team when clarify the weight of your word.

Make this decision without me” and “This is not urgent” help your team calibrate your word accurately. Unless you’re explicit about it, your team will assume otherwise. Don’t mislead them.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.