The power of words.


“Words can inspire and words can destroy. Choose yours well.”   -Robin Sharma

I had a fascinating meeting last week that I thought I would share.

As part of my leadership and management training camp, I was able to sit down and have a meaningful conversation with a very diverse group of emerging leaders who are, in part, recruiting and training for a direct sales position. Although we talked about many different topics, the subject of high turnover kept on emerging again and again. It did not take much to understand that it was a genuine issue for them. One of the main trends in the conversation was the noncompliance of most newly hired individuals to follow the well-planned and rigorous training offered.

The debate really took on between two main groups of leaders. On one side, were the persons who were intransigent in keeping a single rigid, but proven, sales methodology, keeping it uniform within all employees. In other words, imposing the training curriculum on all trainees, until finding the ones who will understand it’s benefits regardless of the costly turnover. The other side had those who understood the necessity of conformity but abdicated to the current recruiting requirements, promoting a more flexible approach. This group believed in proposing a proven curriculum while allowing individualism and learning by mistakes.  After laying the ground work, one main question emerged.

The question of the day.

The question of the day truly was, “Who should give in, the newbies or the trainers.”

Well that is a great question, isn’t it? Of course, it is easy to sway one way or another depending on the situation. For example, in a company who is in a hot hiring market (meaning that there are more job seekers that positions available) and has a nonessential recruiting requirement, the trainer would, without doubts, get his or her way. However, on the opposite spectrum, in a cool hiring market where the company is under pressure to acquire new staff members, the new employee will assuredly dictate terms.

But the more I was listening to the arguments, the less convinced I was that the question was the right one. How could having double standards and abandoning a plan willy nelly be beneficial to any organization? On the other end, accepting turnover is accepting mediocrity and much too costly in time and money.

Of course, the curriculum itself could be the problem with unreasonable timelines, inadequate techniques or even unsuccessful overall processes. But having had a part in developing this particular training program, I don’t believe that it was the case.

No, the real question was why choosing at all? Why should one party win and another lose? Why should one person receive a substandard training? How could accepting mediocrity relate to success?

The big mistake.

“Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.”    -Jodi Picoult

This was when I realized that this group of emerging leaders were mistaking standards and expectations.

What does that mean exactly? How can 2 simple words drastically change the course of action of individuals conducive to alter the outcome into a successful one?

Well, here lays one of the best-kept secret of all times: The power of words. Yes, words can unquestionably assist you in decoding the best course of action in any situation. Think only about what a few simple words can mean to a corporate industry when used as core values for example. “Trust, People-first, Excellence, Profitability, Self-Improvement, Integrity, Idealism, Courage, Honesty, Unselfishness, Self-Discipline, Self-Respect.” These are keywords that will allow an entity to progress and evolve a certain way and produce a particular result in line with its overall vision. They will assist in difficult times, and help re-align the entire company within its ideology. Without specific words underlying a distinct identity, enterprises are condemned to systematic failure that could include a catastrophic decline.

But I digress. Let us go back to our story:

Before going any further, however, let us examine the difference between standards and expectations. What can the definition teach us?

  • Standards: A level of quality or attainment. Something considered by an authority or by general consent as a basis of comparison or approved model. Morals, ethics, habits and son on, established by authority, custom, or individuals as acceptable.
  •  Expectations: A belief that someone will or should achieve something. A strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.

Since standards are an approved benchmark of attainment, they cannot be modified unless under routine review such as a yearly assessment. They will not, however, be altered due to situational pressure. They are, by definition, the only element that guides you through rough waters to come out un-scraped, time and time again. Indeed, one of the most significant rules governing chaos is “When standards are set, decisions are easy.” Therefore, allowing for readjustment of standards at a difficult time is synonymous with accepting chaos. Whatever the outcome, it won’t work in your favor.

So, if leaders cannot change standards, what are they to do? Well, they need to lower their expectations of course.

The solution.

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”   -George Orwell

And there was the problem: Our emerging leaders had way too much expectation in the sense that their beliefs dictated that new recruits should listen, accept, understand and apply their system without questions or further arguments. Even more, each one was under the false understanding that new staff members would accept them as the authority without further judgment and therefore comply with the acceptance that the curriculum and learning process was indeed the best course of action for them. What this group omitted from the equation, was the fact that they were hiring humans and not machines.

Lowering the expectations meant to accept the fact the human being is skeptic by nature and will not accept a course of action without proves that it is in his favor to pursue it. On the contrary, a new hire will require the finest salesmanship to influence him adequately. In other words, trainers should have firm standards, but little expectations that an individual will understand them, accept them or apply them.

This leads us away from modifying standards and closer to communicating effectively and leading trainees into believing in them. By keeping standards at the agreed upon level, but lowering the expectations, that group would be able to achieve a fundamental step in their quest: To lead before managing. In other words, to coach, influence and persuade individuals into accepting that the essence of the training is in their best interest before managing them into the process. This would be achieved by communicating frequently and efficiently with all concerned such as conducting frequent one on ones, demonstrating the success of the program by allowing shadowing and situational observations for example.

But even then, accepting that time will be a major factor in bringing a new hire on board with your methodology is essential in eliminating turnover. Indeed, the expectations should be that they will fail, make senseless mistakes, purposely not follow instructions, disregard precious pieces of advice, all of this thinking that they are wiser than you. Yes, the expectation is that they will need permanent readjustment and coaching to help them achieve your standards.

At the end of the day, newly recruited individuals are no different than my 6-year-old son. I can explain to him why it is important to clean up his toys after playing with them until I am blue in the face, but only reiteration and indeed, litany will make him eventually comply. And should I be persistent, preserving my standards, and setting clear and low expectations, will he, Lord willing, understand the power of words and one day teach his own son to clean up his toys.

Deinde usque ad tempus.

David Wanner for Progressive Consulting 01/02/2017



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