Take That Back!

I have to admit, I’m a closet Glee fan. Often, I wish my life was Glee. Oh, to be singing and dancing my way through life! But then a scene with the antagonist, Coach Sylvester, comes on, and I’m thankful that I don’t know a soul like her. But I digress. There is an episode where Coach Sylvester tells a kid to take a tube of toothpaste and squirt it into his hand. After a nice blob has formed she tells him, “Now put it back.” Her point is that once news is out, no matter if it’s true or not, it can’t be erased. 

One of the hardest things for me to do is think before I speak. I’m one of those “think as I speak” type of gals. Over the years I have learned (and I’m still learning) communication skills. Here are a few I thought I would share:

If you don’t know something, don’t try to answer. It doesn’t matter if you caveat your answer with, “I’m not sure, but I think…” or, “Don’t hold me to this, but my guess is…” because they will hold you to that (especially when talking to senior leadership). They miss the qualifying words and only hear the rest. If you don’t have the answer, politely inform them that you will get the answer, and then make getting the answer the priority. It is better for you to follow up with the correct answer rather than being corrected when giving the wrong one.toothpaste

Give other people a turn (to be right). People often equate me with Hermione from Harry Potter. When there is a question to be answered, I am the first one with my hand up! I can be the quintessential know-it-all. While it might feel nice showing off what I know, in the long run it doesn’t pay. Other people want the chance to share their information. Being a know-it-all builds walls. Also, sometimes (heaven forbid I even say this) someone else might have a better answer. Purposefully allowing others the opportunity to talk allows information to flow more freely. This builds trust so when something important has to be said, the team feels more comfortable saying it.

Never criticize people with an audience. I’m actually pretty good at this, but I cringe when I hear someone called out on a conference call. When there is an audience present, the best way to handle issues is to focus on the issue and solving it, not the “how did we get here” question. Focusing on next steps is much more productive for everyone involved. The team member doesn’t feel embarrassed, and the rest of the team doesn’t feel uncomfortable. If you must get an answer to “how did we get here,” then investigate it one-on-one with as many people as you need to in order to arrive at the answer.

Recognize people when there is an audience. This doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s important to know how people like to be recognized, but sharing wins on conference calls and team meetings can be motivating for the entire team. If someone put in extra hours, recognize them in public so everyone else can appreciate their sacrifice as well.

When a team is headed the wrong direction, use questions to bring them back on the path. This is a technique I am trying to learn to avoid my “know-it-all” complex. Sometimes you see people headed for disaster, but for some reason saying, “Hey! Watch out! You are headed for disaster” doesn’t seem to work effectively. Instead, asking questions and allowing them to arrive at the conclusion seems much more effective. For instance, if you feel a project isn’t adequately staffed for a deployment into test, you could say, “What is the contingency plan if we find 200 defects right away?” “How do you anticipate prioritizing defects?” “What if there are too many to address; what will be our steps for mitigation?” Asking these types of questions, with a helpful (not condescending) voice, will allow them to see that perhaps they should staff up a little more.

Remember, once you say something, you can’t take it back. You might apologize or say, “I take that back,” but once it’s out, it’s out. From then on, it’s only damage control.

Jana Axline is president and leadership coach at Axline Solutions. Through her leadership musings she hopes to inspire audiences to grow as leaders and ultimately achieve who they were created to be. For more information visit Axline Solutions.

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