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Your words have more power than you think they do

3 min read


One of my favorite stories involves John Jay Whitney, the 20th Century financier who brought us Minute Maid orange juice (and Gone With the Wind, but that’s a different story).  He was looking out over the gentle landscape of his great Long Island seaside estate and mused to his gardener:  “Wouldn’t this make a great polo field?” Then he went away for a while. Then he came back. And found a polo field.

When people work for you, it’s their job to turn your ideas into reality.  How are they to know the difference between a direct request and you just playing with a notion?  Especially these days when a notion can become, say, the iPad.  In this era when innovation is the competitive edge, whatever idea that might drop from your lips could be golden. Or it could be just you scratching a mental itch.  Unless your people have the confidence to question your ideas, you could end up with a polo field.

Talk about power. But when you’re a new manager, you might be so uncomfortable with the idea of having this kind of power that you reject the idea of having any power at all.  Let’s put it this way:  If your opinion of the people who work for you is the difference between employment and unemployment, you have power. And if you reject the idea of having that kind of power, in the spirit of having a so-called egalitarian culture, you might actually be making your people miserable.

In the absence of clarity, abject hop-to-it-iveness fills the gap.  And that’s nothing to be proud of.  (Again, remember the polo field.)  Are people watching you a little too closely to gauge your mood and decide exactly how they should behave around you?  That’s not leadership, that’s power abuse — whether you are doing it on purpose or not.

Here’s how to put your power in its proper place:

  • Be careful who you think aloud in front of. Be your most candid with your power equals – those whose jobs don’t rely on making your whims a reality.  With everyone else, watch your words.
  • Make it safe for people to double-check what you just said. Don’t lose your temper or patience when someone says, “Let me get this straight. Do you really want me to level these beautiful rolling hills and construct a polo field?”  That would be your chance to say, “Oh my gosh no!  I was just thinking aloud.”

If you have a workplace culture where freeflowing ideas bounce around like super balls, good for you! But make sure everyone gets to not only throw ideas around but also question the ideas that come from you.  It will protect the landscape of your business.

Image credit, via iStock