Working remotely, we tend to speak more freely than in the office. Words tumble out of our mouths without much editorial screening. And no wonder; at home we feel we can “be ourselves.”
But beware. The thoughts that come into your mind may not be ones to share. As we face one of the most challenging times in our career and in our businesses, the first words out of our mouth may reek of tentativeness or uncertainty, at a time when people need language that builds confidence.
Take a moment to consider what you want to share with your colleagues or employees, and avoid the following expressions:
1. I’ll try
In these tough times, trying to make things right may be all you can do, but the word “try” sounds weak and ineffectual.
Suppose a direct report comes to you and asks if she will be able to keep her job. You are not sure, because you haven’t done a final reckoning of who stays and who goes, so out of the goodness of your heart, you say, “I’ll try to make that happen.” The word “try” sounds too tentative and gives the impression there are larger forces at work beyond your control.
Even if that’s the case, it’s best to say what’s clear and decisive: “We are taking steps to draw up a plan, and I will let you and your teammates know as soon as the plan is completed.”
2. I can’t promise
Everyone knows that in the midst of all this uncertainty, nothing is clear or definite, so it’s best to avoid such expressions.
Just imagine that your boss says, “I can’t promise that we’ll all be headed back to the office, nor can I promise that you can work at home from here on.” People don’t want to know what you don’t know.
The solution is to say what you can say definitively: “I can promise we are at work creating a phased-in back-to-work plan, and we will share it with you in the next few weeks.”
3. I don’t know how long this will last
Nobody knows how long the COVID-19 virus will be around, so there’s no reason to say you don’t know.
Once you say, “I don’t know how long this will last,” you and your colleague will be on a downward spiral speculating that it could be one year, two years, or indefinitely, before a vaccine is found. This is not the kind of discussion that inspires. Stay on the high ground with solutions and don’t touch topics that have no solution.
4. What are your fears?
Asking someone to share their fears may seem like an enlightened idea. But it’s not.
I attended an online seminar recently in which the instructor said, “Ask your people what their fears are. . . . Because getting them out and on the table means that they can be addressed.” The sad reality is that most of our fears cannot be addressed in this moment.
Sure, we may fear that going back to the office will not be the same, or business will be harder to come by, or we may lose our job. But solving these problems can’t happen in a single conversation. So it’s best not to unleash those uncertainties among team members or peers.
Instead, you might ask about aspirations: “What are your career goals at this point? Have they in any way been shaped by the last few months?”
5. Let’s hope the warm weather will kill the virus
Make sure you don’t spread false hopes or unscientific conjectures. We’ve heard so many opinions on the subject of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and it’s important to deliver only what we know to be true. Don’t repeat unfounded statements, such as “summer weather will defeat the virus,” or “the virus only really affects people over 55,” or “opening up the economy will be good for the country.” Stick to what you and the experts know to be true, and you’ll have more credibility.
6. We’re all in this together
Really? Tell that to someone who has come down with the virus! Or to a healthcare worker who puts her life in jeopardy each day. While everyone has been affected in some way, our experiences are not the same.
Platitudes do not sit well with leadership, and delivering platitudes such as this one will sound fake to most. Stick with what you know and believe, and delete the hype from your conversation.