As a leader, a big part of your job is to help team members understand the expectations of their roles and then perform up to those performance requirements. A significant part of your job is to train and then provide performance feedback. The tendency in many supervisors while training (due to your own habits of thought) is to talk about what you want the other person(s) NOT to do. This approach creates mistakes and missteps. If you start with “Don’t” you are likely to wind up with employee behavior that is the opposite of what you want. When leading, don’t start with “don’t”. The word “Don’t” actually directs the person to a command in your communication.

Here are two quick personal stories to illustrate what happens when you make the mistake of leading with the negative:

Story #1 – An aunt went with us to the beach when I was just a little kid. She was a young teenager at that point, and the group decided to rent bicycles. She was not a regular cyclist, and to this day she’d tell you that athletics are not her forte. The teens and youngsters in the crowd were riding their bikes down the streets in Wildwood, NJ and she was saying to herself, “Don’t hit the parked cars, don’t hit the parked cars, don’t hit the – “ when you know what happened. Bam! She t-boned one smack in the middle of the rear bumper.

Story #2 – I was old enough to remember my mother giving my grandmother, the intrepid Christmas shopper, a gift suggestion. “I could use some new slacks. But whatever you do, don’t get pink – I have enough pink.” Guess what Grandma bought and proudly wrapped for Mom’s Christmas present. Yep. Slacks the color of a tropical sunset – oh, were they ever pink.

My aunt in the first situation and my mom in the second were exasperated. But they weren’t aware that they had inadvertently hidden the wrong commands in their language. They told themselves and others to do exactly what they didn’t want them to do. If you repeat “don’t hit the parked cars” your brain registers everything but the “don’t.” So you create conditions where you’re actually more likely to hit those cars. When you tell an employee, “Whatever you do, don’t lock the keys in the filing cabinet,” you actually plant the idea of doing so in their brain! The result of the don’ts is simply that they DO it anyway.

When you want a certain behavior, specify that behavior and the correct way to execute it. There might be 10 ways to perform the task you need the person to do. Three of the 10 ways might achieve the results you want. Give that person one of the three successful paths, or share all three options and allow him or her to select the one of the three that fits the best given their skills and experience.

Company visions and goals are ways to specify  “DO”. DO ride the bike to the right side of the bike path. DO buy me some gray pants for Christmas – I really need that color. DO hang the keys to the building on the hook under the sales counter. DO take care of customer relationships as though our business depended upon them, because it DOES.

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