Over the past year, I’ve been given much constructive criticism from my friends and professional partners for using absolutes—always, never, every, all, none, certainly, impossible, etc.—when I give speeches, and in conversation. So I’ve been trying to dial down making such strong claims.
Since my tendency for overstatement has been brought to my attention, I’ve become more aware of it in others and find myself correcting them as well. Recently, though, I offered these “corrections” twice, and their response not only has stopped me from doing that ever (and I mean ever) again, it changed my perspective on how we should interact with others in personal conversations and in the workplace.
Here’s what happened in the first case. One of my employees (whom often uses absolutes, especially when she’s passionate about helping a client) was going on about a work-related solution/idea for the client that she was clearly excited about. She used the word “always,” so I corrected her, mid-sentence.
Her face just fell, her enthusiasm evaporated and her energy disappeared. She forgot her idea. Clearly, her confidence had been undermined, and her whole body slumped as she muttered a few words. She then turned her back to me, ended the conversation and walked away.
In truth, when she walked away I thought she was being a bit over-sensitive. Learning to speak better is part of being a better professional. I have been corrected many times and I handled it, considering it a good learning experience. So I figured she could learn, too, from my constructive criticism.
But then, scenario number two happened.
I was out to dinner with a close professional friend who happens to sit on the executive team of a very large publicly traded company. In my experience with him he is the definition of being a professional and frankly, he’s not the definition of sensitive. He was sharing with me an idea he had for a new program and he used the word “always,” so I corrected him in mid-sentence, just as I had done with my employee.
His response was classic and unexpected. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “Knock it off!” It was at that moment I knew I had made a very big mistake, not only with him but with my employee.
To understand my mistake, let’s take a broader look at what happened. I had two people who were very excited about something to do with their job. I hope you can appreciate how rare—and valuable—that is these days. Just finding employees and friends who are passionate about their careers is a challenge: someone who is actually excited about their job is harder to find than a readable tech manual.
And what did I do in response? I just stomped all over their enthusiasm without even having a good reason.
I mean, was their grammar really the most important thing at that moment? More important than listening to their ideas? Regardless of whether their ideas were good or bad, was my reaction more important than giving them positive feedback for taking the initiative and trying to make their company better?
What’s more, after I thought about it, I realized that both my conversations were a pretty usual occurrence in places where I’ve worked, and in the advisory firms we work with.
These kinds of conversations can be very harmful to employee morale, and to the relationship between friends, employees and employers.
In fact, I realized that my actions were an excellent example of the importance of maintaining trust in relationships—and how easy it is to undermine it.
In my September column in Investment Advisor magazine (Relationships End Where They Begin), I wrote about the work of John Gottman, who authored many books, including “The Science of Trust,” and “What Makes Love Last.” The tagline for the latter book is “How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal,” and in it, Gottman writes about his research, which shows “there is a fundamental principle for making relationships work… …that principle is trust.” He goes on to define trust and the opposite of trust—“betrayal”—but not just sexual betrayal, as most of us would think at first.
“If a husband always puts his career ahead of his relationship, that is betrayal,” writes Gottman. “When a wife keeps breaking plans and refuses to help make them, that is also betrayal. Pervasive coldness, selfishness, unfairness and other destructive behaviors are also evidence of disloyalty and can lead to consequence as equally devastating as adultery.”
Gottman goes on to list ten “other ways to betray,” people, nine of which I’ll spare you here.
To me, number seven—“disrespect”—is the important one. He explains it this way: “Whatever the communication style, if he or she implies that you are inferior, you are being treated with disrespect. A contemptuous and superior attitude is emotional abuse whether expressed through frequent name calling or subtle slight. One of my favorite examples is when people who respond by correcting grammar or word usage.”
See where I’m going with this? I’ve come to believe that many of Gottman’s findings about trust and betrayal in personal relationships also apply to work relationships.
Employers “trust” employees to tell them the truth, to take responsibility, to report bad news, to act within the limits of their authority and to act in the best interests of the business and of its clients. Employees trust employers to pay them as agreed, to treat them fairly, to give them the tools and training to succeed at their jobs, to take them seriously, to give them the benefit of the doubt and to recognize their abilities and their contributions to the success of the firm.
When one party—either the employee or the employer—betrays that trust, it damages the relationship.
When I criticized my employee’s and my friend’s word usage, I violated that trust by focusing on something trivial rather than acknowledging how they were trying to contribute to the company.
Unfortunately, I’m not alone: we see owner-advisors and various managers make this same mistake in advisory firms every day (you’d think I’d be more sensitive to it in my own behavior, right?): not listening to their employees, dismissing their ideas, being critical rather than helpful, failing to recognize good performance or when an employee goes above and beyond. The list is endless.
All these behaviors damage the relationship between employers and their employees, resulting in decreased enthusiasm, motivation, performance, and, ultimately, loss of loyalty to the firm.
In my case, I haven’t quite repaired my relationship with that employee, but I’m working on it. Ironically, at the advice of that same executive friend, I sat down with my employee and apologized for what I had said. I told her it was a mistake to focus on her wording, that I use absolutes all the time, and have been trying to stop, which was why I had focused on her language.
I also told her that because of what I said to her, I’d learned from a friend that using absolutes, while perhaps not technically correct, is something that motivated people do when they are passionate about something. And that one of the things that I really like about her and about myself is that we’re very passionate about our work with clients.
So I told her that I’m going to stay passionate, and stop trying so hard not to use absolutes: and that I hope she will too. Furthermore, we agreed to use absolutes every single possible chance we get, to always be passionate about what we do and our clients, and to never ever, ever listen to anyone who tells us to do otherwise.
Moral of story? If you are one of those people constantly correcting someone’s grammar or word usage, perhaps you, too, should “Knock it off.”
I feel like I should hashtag “micdrop” right here…I think I will.