Three statements leaders say that unintentionally derail progress

What we say and how we say it are often at odds with the results we are trying to achieve. Relative to leadership, this is typically the result of our attempts to be empathetic, but instead, we dive into sympathy in an attempt to "soften the blow" of what we are asking our teams to do.

Leaders know how exhaustive the process of change can be. And, leaders know that staff do not always take a positive attitude toward change.

However, this perceived attitude of change resistance can be exacerbated by the things leaders say to try to gain buy-in.

There are many subtle ways leaders derail initiatives without realizing it, inadvertently creating the impression that buy-in is optional and the vision is negotiable. In a leader's honest effort to demonstrate understanding, he or she is unintentionally sympathizing with a victim mindset and undermining the initiative.

The following three statements typify the attempts leaders might make to soften the announcement of a new initiative and result in making the situation that much worse.

"I'm not excited about the initiative either..."

When leaders say this as a way to empathize with the tough circumstances they communicate the message that they are not in support of the changes; the changes have been dictated and they are passing along the bad news. This statement can create the belief that employees have a choice to get in alignment with the decision. If the leader doesn't communicate full support, it's not likely their employees will either.

"This is what we are supposed to do ... but here's what we are going to do..."

When leaders make statements like this, and choose not to be in alignment with their peers, they promote inconsistency. It creates the illusion that adherence is optional, causing animosity, and even unhealthy competition or resentment between teams. Instead, the leader should focus on solutions to make the change work for his or her individual team's circumstances.

"Some consultants are being brought in to..."

When leaders begin with a statement like this it gives the impression that the changes are going to be unfavorable. It puts employees on the defensive, depicting the consultants as "those people" coming in to disrupt everything. It also makes whatever the initiate the consultants have been charged with next to impossible to achieve; resulting in wasted money, increased tension, and a possible missed opportunity to improve the work and lives of everyone in the organization. While it may be the case that consultants are being brought in to help with the initiative, the leader should take steps to inspire their teams with the "why" behind the change vision and verbally convey their support for the new direction and the opportunity the consultants are bringing with them.

In addition to the statements that can sneak into your communication as you try to inspire new direction, what we can tend to overlook is a specific call to action for new behaviors. This inadvertently creates "decision veto" by failing to be clear about what new behaviors will be required to be successful, thus, people keep acting in the same way they always have. Leaders should be clear about what new behaviors, habits and processes should be demonstrated (and by when) for success. Additionally, leaders should not forget about being specific about the processes, procedures, habits, and behaviors that no longer will be accepted. Effective leaders use empathy wisely to acknowledge the emotions felt during a change, but remain firm about what new behaviors will be expected to realize future success.

Even the most positive of changes require new habits. Monitoring for those habits will ensure your initiative (and ROI) stay on track. Action is the key difference between organizations who realize full ROI from implementing changes and new directions, and those who do not. Training, communication, and sound change management processes will assist in that endeavor, but only aligned action in support of organizational decisions, will deliver on the full ROI expected from any given project.

Kelli Hinshaw is director of client education at Avantas, a leading provider of strategic labor management technology, services, and strategies for the healthcare industry. She has more than a decade of experience in human resources including transformational change, training & leadership development, talent acquisition, and performance management. Contact her at

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