We used to sing this song in Sunday school when I was a kid that said, “Oh, be careful little mouth what you say.” Additional verses of the song swapped out “mouth” and “say” for other word pairs like eyes/see, ears/hear, hands/do, and feet/go.
As I evolve as a leader, I’m starting to think that every management meeting should start off with participants singing a few rounds of this song to remember the basics about respect.
“I’m All Ears!”
A few years ago, I attended a focus group for a new company in the corporate wellness space where I consult. One of the vice presidents invited me and several other community leaders representing disciplines such as HR, healthcare, behavioral health, mental health, etc. This company offered non-traditional, leading-edge wellness services.
The president explained their mission, vision, and offerings. Then she said that their ideal corporate clients would “intuitively know the benefits of our services.”
Then she asked us for our thoughts using the common phrase: “I’m all ears!”
I asked a follow-up question about research and return on investment. She gave a similar yet longer response: “Our ideal clients don’t need to see ROI. They will choose to use our services because they want to do the right things for their employees.”
I could almost picture her dressed like a Jedi, waving her hand over some weak-minded business leader who would then say, “Um, I don’t need to see ROI. I want to do this because it’s the right thing for my employees.”
Since I had been asked to speak for HR, I said something corporate-y and HR-y like, “I love your ideas. But without showing some ROI, I’m not sure that companies will invest in nice-to-haves. I think some research and data about the benefits of adopting your practices would help.”
The focus group lasted another hour. Finally, the president and her team thanked us for coming, the meeting ended, and we filed out.
Moments later, I realized I’d left my notebook on the table, so I returned to the meeting room in time to overhear the vice president who invited me say something very critical to her boss about my “nice-to-have” comment. Then she added, “He doesn’t speak for most companies!”
The Walls Have Ears
I locked eyes with the vice president. I smiled, apologized for interrupting, grabbed my notebook, and left.
Oh, be careful little mouth what you say…
I drove 45 minutes to this meeting as a favor to this woman, selflessly sharing with them the benefits of my experience as an HR and corporate decision-maker. In return, the vice president dismissed my feedback and belittled my contribution. This sort of thing goes on all of the time. But on this occasion, what was meant to be said behind my back hit me right between the eyes.
Blow It Out Your Ear!
Good leaders understand these truths:
- Whatever comes out of your mouth will be heard by another, attributed to you, and repeated (often with misquotes).
- Someone is always listening.
- If others can picture those words coming out of your mouth, those words will be believed.
- An egg will not go back in the shell. Do you really think a jury can “disregard” testimony once they’ve heard it just because a judge asked them to? You can’t unsay words or erase their impact.
- If you talk badly about Sally to Sue, you’ve pretty much just told Sue that you’re going to talk about her to the next person who walks into your office.
Becoming Music to Someone’s Ear
The best leaders practice these tips:
- Speak the truth in love. Even when you have criticism to offer, do it in a way that it demonstrates kindness.
- Talk about people behind their backs…when it’s positive. People tend to believe things they overhear or hear secondhand. Make sure if you’re ever repeated, it’s something positive and motivating.
- When you have nothing nice to say, say nothing. My mom said this to me all of the time, and it’s especially true of giving unsolicited criticism.
By the way, the company holding the focus group didn’t survive. Apparently, prospective customers didn’t understand the ROI….
Have you ever overheard someone talking about you? What did you hear? How did it make you feel?