Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

What would your first reaction be to this statement: “Keep your blankety-blank off the grass!” 

Wait, don’t answer yet. What would you think about this one? “We want everyone to enjoy our beautiful lawn, so let’s work together to keep it that way.” Unless you are a bully or just itching for a fight, the latter is clearly more preferable.

As our grandmothers taught us, you can catch more bees with honey. If we agree with this premise, then why does management so often begin with the negatives and go downhill from there?

Think about the communications in your organization and how many assertions start with a negative followed by a litany of unpleasant consequences. Many leaders think it’s more forceful and expedient to say it like it is and simply cut to the chase. They fall into the bad habit of starting with, for example: “If we don’t increase sales in the next month, we might have to lay off many of you,” or, “We either save money on expenses, or we go down the tubes.” Sure, these get the point across, but they also set a pugnacious tone that (1) confirms that management is a bunch of knuckleheads who think they are above everyone else, (2) triggers an action-reaction almost taunting the recipient to do exactly the opposite, or (3) results in the entire message being tuned out.

The key to effective management is accomplishing objectives through others. To do so, however, managers must effectively communicate what must be accomplished. A good initial step is to treat people as participants/partners in the process as a part of the solution, not the cause of the problem.

If your people aren’t responding to your messages look in the mirror. Instead of blaming your employees, determine if your directives are providing clarity and the appropriate motivation.

Ask yourself how you would want to be told something important. You surely won’t want to be told to do something or face dire consequences without an explanation. Frequently, management does not give employees enough credit for having the ability to grasp the obvious. Fact is, you can jump-start acceptance by explaining the issue and the anticipated fix using a logical, positive tone, focusing on the good, rather than the bad.

However, and there are always howevers, if the first communiqué does not elicit the expected action then put the honey in the cupboard and move to plan B. If the first sweet-laced mandate was ignored by some, then home in on those who might need a trip to the woodshed to understand what you really meant. Target your second message to the noncompliant laggards with the old-school, stronger-style message, as in, “What part of no didn’t you understand?” Unless these tardy adopters are dumber than a stump, the light bulb between their ears, with a little nudge, will flash, and they’ll likely fall in line.

It’s also very important to understand in most cases that the medium is the message. This means that the vehicle or venue you select to deliver your directive is just as important as the message itself. Delivering a serious concern about sales would be inappropriate as a part of your presentation at, say, a company awards event. Good news should be presented in an upbeat setting, while subjects that are more serious should be delivered in an environment that conveys the message as strictly business.

For instance, send an important message in an e-mail with a grabber subject line that reads “Immediate Attention Required, Confidential Information About Our Company’s Future.” Alternatively, a statement of consequence could be presented verbally by senior management to a small or even larger group after which attendees would be handed an envelope bearing their name with a reprint of the points delivered verbally. This adds credibility and significance to the message. However, remember a serious message can still be delivered in a positive tone.

Finally, if all else fails, you can always revert to the no-holds-barred technique of starting out with, “Keep your blankety-blank of the grass or there won’t be any grass for you to walk on.” Most times, the honey will work and your employees will respect you for being positive, yet forthright. If it comes to the stick and the woodshed, at least you will get credit for trying, and the good people will appreciate your follow-through and know that you are not merely a paper tiger.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at