By January 15, 2009 15 Comments Read More →

Two Sentences That Don’t Help

I’ve blogged before about the “20 things supervisors shouldn’t say.”

I’ll throw out, for discussion, two phrases that are awful to hear in the context of any change management situation, such as Lean in a hospital or a factory.

When I’m proposing, or my team is proposing, change – such as a new layout, new standardized work, or other changes, it’s very unproductive for people to say:

“That won’t work.”

or

“I don’t like that”

The first first phrase is pure negativity. One team member might hear a comment like that and just walk away discouraged. I would coach them to ask the person probing questions, in a respectful way, to find out if there is a legitimate concern or just standard resistance to change. Instead of walking away, explain to the naysayer, “Here’s why we think it will work….”

You want to get feedback from people and their input… but it has to be constructive. If you have a better way or you see a legitimate hole in the process…. speak up. But if you complain, give an alternative. Be constructive.

It’s much better to have people thinking “how do we make this work?” instead of sitting back and just being a naysayer.

Along those same lines, let’s say there is a new checklist introduced. Saying “I don’t like that” and walking away isn’t constructive either. Why doesn’t the person dislike the new idea? Is there a legitimate issue, or is it just unhelpful negativity?

My recommendation and guidelines for giving feedback would include:

  1. If you’re going to be outright negative, do it in private. If you’re a supervisor or manager and you’re negative, your employees will feed off of that.
  2. If you have a disagreement — speak up! But do so in a constructive way. Propose alternatives. Use reasoning. Don’t just complain.

These are pretty common change management issues, are they not? How do you deal with situations like this or coach others to handle them?

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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15 Comments on "Two Sentences That Don’t Help"

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  1. Lee Stacey says:

    I agree completely that saying “that won’t work” is pure negativity. Unfortunately it tends to be the default response. Fortunately I’ve heard it so many times that it is pretty easy to turn on its head.

    Saying “I don’t like that” however is actually a good thing, even though it initially looks negative because it is pure honesty and very often seeds a conversation that is beneficial to the job at hand.

  2. Mark Graban says:

    Agree that “I don’t like that” is OK, as long as the people working on change can follow up and probe to find out what the issue is. I’d rather have people complain than be passive aggressive (another thing that doesn’t help).

    Sometimes people hear that negativity and just give up if they’re not strong enough or experienced enough to push deeper to find the issue (or the cause of the anxiety).

  3. Evan J Miller says:

    In our organization we’ve gotten in the habit of saying “Yes, AND…” instead of “Yeah, But…” “Yeah, But… is a typical segue into “That won’t work” or “I don’t like that”. “Yes, AND…” can lead into building on each other’s ideas; collaboration instead of competition. Of course it can be manipulative if it is just a gimmick, but the discipline of “Yes, And…” can cause of shift of perception in the speaker. This is a technique we learned some years ago from improv comedy where the goal is to keep the dialog going, not shut it down or turn it into argument.

  4. Eric P says:

    Personally, I prefer the Socratic method that Marc hinted at. If you think it won’t work, keep asking questions until the original contributor realizes it won’t work. It’s a great teaching method. Just remember to ask in a respectful way, and be open to letting others brainstorm ways around the issues as they are uncovered.

  5. EasyLearnStockMarket says:

    I’ll have to agree with Eric and Marc on asking questions..I’ll just have to take exception to going in private to be negative. Even that behavior bubbles to the surface, I’d rather deal with the negative issues up front than let them fester for awhile.

    -Bill

  6. Mark Graban says:

    I think you can have the discussions in private without stifling feedback.

    I can handle “people being negative” if they aren’t broadcasting that negativity where lots of people overhear it. That’s especially true for supervisors. Argue, complain, be negative all you want in a private setting… but leaders need to be positive in public, I think.

  7. curiouscat says:

    I don’t agree it is pure negativity. I understand that the psychology of many people has lead them to want confirmation and to dislike criticism of even ideas they propose. There are techniques to use better words. But I wish more people objected to bad ideas instead of just letting them go because they were afraid of being seen as negative.

    Yes it would be nice if they objected in some wonderfully polished way. It would however also be nice if people were not so insecure that criticizing an idea had to be avoided at all costs without couching in positive terms.

    People should try to be constructive with criticism. I don’t think there are many people that disagree with that. The problem I see far more often is people need to learn how to encourage people to criticize their ideas. We want more people providing their thought not less. And what I see most often from people objecting to “negative” people is trying to discourage raising legitimate issues and using the claim of “negativity.” Obviously this is not always the case. But that is the problem I see far more often than the problem really being someone that is just negative.

  8. Mike T. says:

    I always drive one phrase into each group I work with: “how do we change ‘we can’t because…’ into ‘what would we have to do…'” It allows them to “clear the air” and the negative vibes, then turns into a great brainstorming session for ideas to get around the obsticles. It also helps stimulate or drive home that cultural change we want to accomplish. Negativism isn’t bad and shouldn’t be kept in private. Hit it head-on and turn it into something positive. Keeping it private only fuels the fire…and some really great ideas come from being forced to go beyond it, rather than be allowed to use it as an excuse.

  9. Mark Graban says:

    My concern about keeping negativity private is that, even if you turn that into constructive discussion, the negativity tends to be louder and overheard more by people who don’t then hear the positive outcome.

    I think keeping negativity private goes in line with the good management advice of “criticize privately, praise publicly”.

  10. Jamie Flinchbaugh says:

    There are times when someone should absolutely, positively criticize publicly. It should be done as feedback, not just straight criticize, so the HOW matters a great deal.

    The common situation is this – someone does something or says something that is unacceptable behavior. Perhaps it’s acting in an unsafe manner, perhaps it’s putting someone down, perhaps it’s acting sexist or racist. If you keep that criticism private, you end up enabling that behavior to repeat in other people. You must take action on those behaviors quickly and publicly.

  11. Rick Bohan says:

    Assuming we’re talking about ideas and such rather than, as Jamie says, uncalled for language, I tell supervisors to say, “Tell me more about that,” and “What I hear you saying is…” until they have enough data to respond to the employee’s ideas. It puts the ball in the employee’s court and allows the supervisor to make certain he or she has all the information needed to say, “That’s a good idea!”…or something else.

    If, after all the data is in, it turns out the employee’s idea or position doesn’t have merit, the response I suggest to supervisors is, “We need to keep keep thinking about this.” or “We need to consider some additional/other alternatives.”

    Some have told me they think these sorts of responses are just attempts to be “politically correct” but I see them as appropriate when the organization is trying to engender an action oriented, participative culture.

  12. Anonymous says:

    First, I think in this post and in these comments there is far too much focus on ‘feelings’ and wanting to make sure everyone is all warm and fuzzy in the work setting.

    Basically, in the job setting, we’re all adults and as such we all should be mature enough to have someone reply to an idea with either “That won’t work.” or “I don’t like that.” and not be offended.

    I have found that the easiest way to respond to people who say things like this is simply to ask why.
    Usually they have a reason for their belief, but often it is something that can be overcome many times quite easily once it is known.

    Conversely, I have observed a lot of public support for many ideas and projects only for them to be undermined and ultimately destroyed through private negative conversations that are never official and can slowly corrode, and diffuse support.

    Honestly, I really prefer everyone to be blunt and upfront in public, no matter how negative it is as long as they can logically back up their viewpoint.

    For those who don’t like how it feels when someone says “That won’t work.” or “I don’t like that.”; grow up and become a constructive part of the conversation by asking the person who made those statements to validate their opinion so you can better learn their point of view.
    Stop worrying about how you feel and step into their shoes so you can attempt to learn how they see these things.

    – Ryan

  13. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, I forgot to mention that what I said is not in reference to leaders and managers as I do agree with Mark that they really need to stay positive above the frey.
    I also feel they should be the first to respond to a naysayer with questions which requires them to support their opinion as this often allows the person to say their peace and feel apart of the team.
    It also allows for potentially unknown variables to be discovered, and diffuses the possible tension in the room while refocusing everyone back onto the main issue.
    – Ryan

  14. Mark Graban says:

    Thanks for the good discussion everyone.

    One detail that I didn’t share, that maybe adds some context…. the “public” setting I’m describing is a nursing station in the hospital.

    So, public loud broadcasting of negativity could be overheard by families or even patients. It’s a bit different than how that interaction might be perceived on a factory floor where customers aren’t present.

  15. Rick Bohan says:

    I’ve never been sure why “focus on ‘feelings’ and wanting to make sure everyone is all warm and fuzzy in the work setting” is always mentioned in a pejorative way as if it would be a bad thing for an organization to do. There’s a fair amount of data that show that “warm and fuzzy” organizations perform better, on average, than “cold and prickly companies”.

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