Since you’re reading this article despite its title, you’ve already proven its premise: People often do the very thing they’re asked not to do.
You probably intuitively knew that, especially if you have kids, but you may not have thought about how this premise relates to leadership. You should also not think about a sun-drenched beach or a frozen drink with a salted rim.
Oops! You thought about those things just now, didn’t you? Of course you did. You had to. You had to visualize them as a means of telling yourself what not to think about.
In one of my favorite scenes from the classic movie The Wizard of Oz, the voice of the great and powerful Oz instructs Dorothy and her friends to, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” after which that little man is all they focus on.
When we emphasize something we want others to disregard, we unintentionally reinforce it and make it more memorable. Our brains have difficulty processing negatives, or the absence of something, so instead we picture the very things we were told to ignore - then attempt to delete those images. As a result, you may still be dreaming about sipping an icy margarita while relaxing beneath a palm tree. Sorry.
The same principle applies to leadership. If you tell an employee what not to do (don’t worry, don’t forget, don’t interrupt, don’t miss the deadline, don’t mess up), their mind processes the verbs first: worry, forget, interrupt, miss, mess up. The “don’t” comes afterwards - like a pencil eraser attempting to remove permanent ink. Ironically, their primary focus becomes the very action you want them to avoid. It's no only ironic; it’s counterproductive.
Employees need to visualize success, not failure, so as leaders we should resist the temptation to verbalize anything we don't want them to do. Instead, we should paint a mental picture of success by stating the course of action we do want them to take using affirmative, directive language. Rather than stating, “Don’t forget about the budget or you’re liable to miss the deadline” say “Please remember to submit your budget by tomorrow so you beat the deadline.”
Speak what you want to occur and it's much more likely to happen.
If you enjoyed this article, go buy yourself a margarita. You deserve it!
©2017 Don Levonius