Starting with “No, But, or However” (Habit Series #5)

The fifth habit that Marshall Goldsmith discusses in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There is all about telling people they’re wrong. Leaders do it, a lot, and often without realizing it’s happening. This habit is also about telling the truth and providing clarity, but before we dive into the details, imagine this scenario.

Mr. Roger Astin, exercise scenario manager of U.S. Army South,
briefs a group of multinational officials during PKO North ’08, MANAGUA, Nicaragua. Photo by Maj. Tim Stewart.

Cyclic Wrongs

You’re in a briefing about the next quarter’s training events and just as the presenter gets going with his main points, the boss stops him and says, “You’re wrong.” Then later, one of your colleagues adds a point of consideration only to similarly hear from the boss, “You’re wrong.” As the briefing shifts to a discussion format, you try your hand at collaboration (because maybe the previous contributors were really just wrong). “Sir, what if we consider involving other units in this event?” Then, you guessed it, “You’re wrong.” You’re demoralized and the rest of the room is now thoroughly shut down, thinking of inventive ways to distract themselves instead of ways to add value.

You might be thinking: “Wait, this never happens, right? What boss consistently tells his team they’re wrong? I’ve never heard of that.” Try replacing “You’re wrong” with “That’s a good point, but you need to consider…” Or replace “You’re wrong” with “We do have to be aware of that, however…”

Does the conversation sound familiar now? Few leaders flat-out tell their people they’re wrong. Instead, we offer platitudes to make the person feel good, insert “but” or “however,” then contradict them with the our own opinion. This interaction negates their contribution without the sting of “You’re wrong.”

Marshall Goldsmith writes:

When you start a sentence with ‘no,’ ‘but,’ ‘however,’ or any variation thereof, no matter how friendly your tone or how many cute mollifying phrases you throw in to acknowledge the other person’s feelings, the message to the other person is You are wrong. It’s not, ‘I have a different opinion.’ It’s not, ‘Perhaps you are misinformed.’ It’s not, ‘I disagree with you.’ It’s bluntly and unequivocally, ‘What you’re saying is wrong, and what I’m saying is right.’ Nothing productive can happen after that.

He also points out that the people who use the words the most are the ones who try to consolidate power. They subjugate others and stifle constructive input. It’s the nicest form of bullying.

Easy Cash

In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Goldsmith tells of an exercise he does with corporate clients to reveal how often they tell their people they’re wrong. He charges them $20 every time they use “no”, “but,” or “however.” Just like discovering you said “um” 63 times during a speech, leaders are shocked to find out how many times they use “no”, “but,” or “however,” then quick change their ways when they have to shell out bill after bill to Marshall.

Ask a teammate to do the same and I bet you’ll find the words littering your daily vocabulary.

Hidden Truth & Absent Thanks

Two things are missing when we do this. One is an expression of appreciation for the person making the comment. Right or wrong, relevant or not, you should be thankful that you’ve got a teammate who is willing to speak up and contribute. There are plenty of leaders out there struggling to spark any initiative from their people.

Second, when we caveat a compliment with “but,” then add our overriding thoughts, we muddy the truth of how valuable the person’s input was. He/She ends up wondering if their comment was worthwhile and others in the room have to figure out if it was worth paying attention to. “But” creates confusion when what organizations desperately need is clarity.

Military Takeaway

Service members know that you need to have thick skin to succeed in the military. The pace of training and combat dictates that team members should be able to take direct negative feedback and bounce right back into line. What military leaders need to pay attention to is that we don’t constantly demand that resilience from our followers. Rank and command authority make it easy to shoot down ideas and flaunt our experience, but is that necessary for the situation? We sometimes forget that it’s ok to be a collaborative leader instead of an authoritative one.

So for the next few days, try to notice the times you reply with “no,” “but,” or “however.” Ask your team for help and encourage them to call you on it. You’ll find that doing so elevates the quality of your guidance, as well as your team’s collaborative engagement.

Also, be sure to read #12 of Sutton’s 12 Things Good Bosses Believe and find out how easy it is to be an insensitive jerk.

Questions for Leaders

  • Am I truly willing to discover how my words impact my people?
  • Are there opportunities to stop at “Thank you” instead of tacking-on my own opinion afterwards?
  • How can I be more aware of situations that demand emotional resilience and lighten up during those that don’t?

For more insight from Marshall Goldsmith, check out the resources below.

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Click here to read the other posts in the Habit Series.


You can access Marshall Goldsmith’s resources and content at the following links:Winning

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