Time and time again, I hear about managers and leaders waving their imaginary magic wands and expecting people to do things they are not equipped nor trained to do.
The common catch-phrases are: "He should be doing this . . . she should be doing that." The "shoulds" and "oughts" are proclaimed so easily, but few statements are more judgmental, demoralizing, and deflating.
"Shoulds" are easy to use—they're a quick way to get one's opinion across. And managers who "should" on people sincerely believe they are providing good direction. But in reality, these managers are distancing themselves from their role of true leadership and diminishing their effectiveness.
Laura Crawshaw, Principle of the Executive Insights Development Group based out of Salt Lake City, says the problem is way too common.
"It's everywhere, and it's really sad," she says. "It's like watching a man drowning in a swimming pool with the man's supervisor standing next to the pool yelling, 'You should be swimming! Start swimming!'"
According to Crawshaw, managers who practice "shoulds and oughts" ignore their responsibility to coach, mentor, and/or equip those who need their guidance. "They unknowingly duck their responsibilities," she says.
Ask subordinates how they feel when a manager "shoulds" on them, and the great majority of them say they feel belittled and minimized.
"It makes me feel dumb," says one person I know who asked not to be identified. "My boss listens to me explain a problem we've been having, then when he thinks he's heard enough he passes his judgment about what 'should' have happened instead. Lately we don't even want to tell him when we've had a problem—we prefer not to get lectured."
Think for a moment about the ripple-effect of that pattern: Problems go unmentioned to management, and eventually management has no clue about what's really occurring on the shop floor. Smaller problems then escalate into larger, more costly ones that seem to blow up out of nowhere.
Ouch, but true.
Earlier this year during a workshop, I was a bit taken back by one rather obstinate senior manager criticizing his front-line supervisors. "They're supervisors now, not line workers," he said. "They should be able to handle these problems. If they can't do the job they should be fired."
I've got news for this guy: Learning doesn't happen by osmosis.
"Shoulding" on people doesn't help. A manager's job is to be a mentor; a leader; an equipper. Therefore, a better approach is to ask questions – and all the better if these questions are asked of oneself!
These questions could be, "what wasn't in place," or "what is my role in that?" Also, "What am I, as a manager, not doing?" "What didn't I teach?" "What didn't I equip my people to do?"
Another approach as a mentor/manager is to relate stories about your own "a-ha" experiences and explain what you learned from them.
William Sinclair is a sales manager who has worked in several industries over his long career. He agrees that using "shoulds" is an ineffective approach. He says, "If I were on a sales call with a sales rep and he misses all the buying signs, I certainly wouldn't tell the rep what he 'should have done.' I would tell that rep a story or two about how I missed buying signals when I was younger in my career."
Sinclair goes on to say that "if you want your people to be successful, they have to believe they can be successful. If you tell them what they 'should' be doing, they won't feel successful."
Bottom line, if managers want their people to take responsibility, then managers need to take responsibility themselves. This begins by asking themselves how they can better equip their people. It means being a coach, not a criticizer—a mentor, not a demoralizer.
People have to believe that they can be successful, and "shoulds" put a stake right in the heart of that belief.