Catching more flies with honey: a timeless lesson from our mothers that’s worth repeating

Business executives and managers — young and old, novice or experienced — need to pause periodically and reflect on what their mothers told them when they were young: “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

This seems obvious, but the real lesson to remember is that a good leader can still act like a leader — projecting confidence, firmness and pragmatism — without taking on the persona of a perpetually cold-hearted curmudgeon when making requests or giving orders.

Much of the problem emanates from bad habits and the false sense that if a leader is empathetic, pleasant and polite, he or she just won’t be taken seriously. The media perpetuates this hard-as-nails image when movers and shakers are bestowed graphic nicknames such as “Neutron Jack” or “Chainsaw Al,” which are mild compared to some even more pugnacious handles.

New managers are often the worst offenders. They tend to try to compensate for their youth and inexperience by dispatching orders and simple requests with staccato inflections and a scowl. The common perception is the fiercer one looks, the more determined they are, and what they’re communicating is tantamount to a matter of life or death.

Another contributing factor is the insecurity of leaders who think that if they appear too human, subordinates will take advantage of them. That is far from the truth and the best antidote is to back up orders with the reasons why they make sense.

Try these techniques and learn for yourself: The next time you have to deliver a directive that will not be well received, do so in a softer tone than the one to which subordinates are accustomed. In doing so, intersperse the word “please” a few times and try smiling, not a big know-it-all-grin or smirk, just a low-key upturn of the mouth. Explain what you want done in a conversational manner and conclude with a “thank you.” Remember, a leader doesn’t need to be a drill sergeant.

Here is another: When something isn’t completed correctly and you’re compelled to intervene, do so without raising your voice or in a smug tone.

I like these methods because, as an ancillary benefit, when used appropriately, they’re contagious. Additionally, the recipient will listen more closely to your rationale, be less defensive and may even empathize with you. Your subordinate won’t feel threatened and will more readily recognize the error of their ways and correct them with greater vigor.

Adopting an even keel style doesn’t mean one must become a spineless wimp. Instead, taking it down a notch typically can accomplish more versus the stereotypical “I’m the boss and don’t you forget it” form of communication.

And when it comes time to make a strong point with a stern delivery, it will be taken very, very seriously because it won’t be you behaving like the old you.

Never forget mother knows best, and honey beats vinegar every time.