Recently, Southwest Airlines ran a series of TV commercials showing people saying the wrong things to other people. The tagline for the spots went something like, "Want to get away? Then fly Southwest to Florida or elsewhere for these budget-saving rates."
I was reminded of that recently when I made another one of my foot-in-the-mouth comments that come upon me every once in a while. After I said it, I started looking for a hole to crawl into so I could drop out of sight. Here's what happened: I was leaving my office for lunch and ran into a colleague outside my building. I hadn't seen her for a while, and she obviously had put on some weight. My first thought was that she was pregnant, so I blurted out, "When are you expecting?" Without breaking stride she answered me quickly with, "Chuck, I'm not pregnant. I've just put on a few extra pounds." I was both embarrassed and dumbfounded and stammered my apologies, which she took good-naturedly. That faux pas has stayed with me for some time and I'll always remember how I felt. If there had been a dunce cap available I would have put it on knowing that I had offended a colleague whom I both respected and admired. I can only cringe to think how she must have felt.
Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a column about businesspeople making indiscreet remarks. As most of us know, this phenomenon is not at all uncommon and there are now individuals who coach executives who find themselves doing this sort of thing with some frequency. We all have known people who do this by making tactless and indiscreet remarks everywhere they go. Unless corrected, some individuals can hurt their careers through careless comments. I have seen this happen too often.
There's always the right time and place for anything, and making a comment at the wrong time can be disastrous. If you are in business negotiations, an improper remark can be a deal-killer. Salespeople learn early on what constitutes an inappropriate remark, or they get out of the field. But managers too often don't see the consequences of saying the wrong thing until it's too late, until morale has gone bad or someone leaves the organization.
One expert, Hal Reiter, head of Herbert Mines Associates in New York, suggests that the best policy and deterrent for making inappropriate comments is prevention. Apparently he has suffered the same embarrassment that many of us have by saying the wrong thing, and he follows what he calls the "24-hour rule." When he thinks he is about to say the wrong thing he simply tells the other person he will have a better answer the following day.
Then there are the bosses who too often can say the wrong thing and wreak havoc among their colleagues. Joni Johnston, a San Diego psychologist and workplace consultant, believes that too many bosses think, "As long as I'm telling the truth, I can say whatever I want to," and so she suggests "building in some kind of delay" mechanism. I guess that's a more sophisticated way of saying that people should keep their mouths shut until they can think of something appropriate to say. In the case of a boss, whatever he or she says can have a profound effect on the morale of the organization. The boss' opinions and statements are echoed through the halls by staff. Given that even a benign comment can be twisted and misinterpreted through the rumor mill, you can't be too careful about what you say.
Of course, there are all kinds of ways to say the wrong thing, but one of the most offensive is the boss who ridicules and makes snide remarks about a colleague's ideas. Putdowns are easy to make, but the consequences can be complicated. In one case, according to the Journal, a manager's boss got so sick and tired of apologizing for his associate's behavior that he hired an executive coach to work with him to break him of his bad habit. It worked. Now the reformed manager says, "I get up and excuse myself before I say something really stupid."
What a lot of this boils down to is sensitivity and respect for others, but too often we are all in such a hurry that we forget that others have the same cares and desires that we do. They want to be treated with dignity and respect, and if they aren't their productivity and attitudes may not be what they should be. Observe highly effective leaders and you will always see them listening to their people and giving them the respect they deserve. I think the key to all of this is to forget about who is the boss and who is the subordinate and simply think of people as your colleagues. No matter what one's station is in any company we should all pay attention to one another and make sure we go out of our way to treat others as we want to be treated. Most successful companies have cultures of mutual respect, and that starts at the top. Most quality bosses think before they speak. All of us would do well to follow that advice.
Different individuals have different sensitivity levels, and an off-hand comment to some may bring them to tears while the same comment to others might make them laugh. People have different ways of looking at things, and if we are going to inspire and motivate, it's in our best interests to figure these things out before we open our mouths.