It’s not what you say it’s the way that you say it…

I was in my doctor’s waiting room recently and noticed a box of toys, provided to keep bored children amused.  Above it was a sign which read ‘We’d be grateful if toys are returned to the box after use. Thank you.’  I was struck by how impactful this was compared with the usual ‘Please return toys after use’ or brusque ‘Return toys after use’ you more often see, and began to reflect on why.

The third option, Return toys… is a command, and most of us don’t like being told what to do.  Despite being the most direct and, some would argue, the most forceful message, it’s actually the opposite.  It’s like a red rag to a bull and almost invites the contrary or indifferent to deliberately ignore it, hardly the outcome the writer desired.

The second option, Please return toys… is a request, and most of us are willing to do what we’re asked, particularly if we’re asked politely.  However, responding to a request creates a feeling of obligation; most of us would probably comply but perhaps a little resentfully.

The first option is something else entirely.  It’s not asking or telling us to do anything, it’s not an instruction of any kind, it’s not about us at all.  It’s an invitation and allows us to decide what we should do about it.  But, and here’s the clever bit, it’s an invitation to make someone else happy and we are all hard-wired to please.  If we can do something that makes someone else feel better, especially a small thing, and especially if we know our actions are appreciated, we’ll gladly do it.  And that’s what the notice does, ‘We’ll be grateful’ is the invitation to please, ‘thank you’ acknowledges our action is appreciated and ‘return toys’ is the small, insignificant task we now will do gladly.  It’s brilliant writing, the toys are tidied away and we feel good about doing it – a great result.

So what does that mean in the world of management?

All managers, by the nature of the role, have to get other people to do things.  And other people, by the nature of their roles, are not always inclined to do it.  So what are the options?

Sometimes, when time is short and the outcome critical, a command will work, “leave now, there’s a fire” is pretty compelling.

A request, particularly from your boss, is hard to ignore. “Can I have your forecast by 5.00 please?” will probably be met but at what cost?  The subordinate may feel resentful and under-valued and the quality of the forecast may be questionable.

But “I’d appreciate your forecast by 5:00, thanks” is a different story.  Here’s a chance to make your boss happy and be appreciated for doing so – who’s not going to take that opportunity?

So, next time you want something from your team choose your words carefully.  It may get you more than you asked for.