Monday, 12 March 2018

Do's are better than dont's

It is amazing how much meaning we can convey without realising, at times. When we say "Don't turn this job in later that 5pm. I need it then", it is a much more negative message than "Turn this job in at 5pm. I need it then".

Discounting any possible sub-text from tone, pace and inflection, the first comes across as command and control, and "I don't really trust you to get the job done". It implies a lack of faith in the employee’s ability to complete, and sets up the manager as the 'enforcer', undermining trust in the employment relationship. The second is an instruction. While it might be blunt, it is much less likely to get anyone's back up. We could imagine that the manager sees the employee has good intentions, will be responsible and will therefore be successful.

The trouble is it is so easy to use negative statements. If we have been burned in the past, they can then trip off the tongue incredibly easily. We make assumptions about people: falling into the trap of the corollary of Halo theory (Thorndike, 1920): that once bad employees are always bad. We build a story about people that does not let them escape a past misdemeanour.

Then that story becomes concrete, and we add the magic ingredient which builds resentment: absolutes. Absolutes are words like 'always' and 'never', which change a negative statement into a judgement which is guaranteed to brass everyone involved off. "Forget about meeting that deadline. Kim is always late". "Chris unfailingly jams the photocopier". "In five years Tui has never filled the pool car up after using it".

Ouch. Watch the workplace - or family - culture erode. 

So how can we resist the seductiveness of making such statements? By noticing. We need to notice ourselves when we use absolutes, and the tone with which we speak people. We can think about how we would like to be spoken to, and try to reflect that back to everyone with whom we are starting to treat with less dignity, honesty and respect. We can make a list - either physical or mental - of those things that we habitually say to individuals that are negative.

And then we can purge our own stories, and let people grow past our criticism. We can bite our tongues and break some bad habits of our own ;-D


  • Reference: Thorndike, E. L. (1920). A constant error on psychological rating. Journal of Applied Psychology, IV, 25-29

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