What a leader should not say

I have been a working professional for 10 years.  My roles have included being a manager; often under the supervision of a general manager or department director.  In my various roles I was responsible for leading projects and providing outcomes.  At times I would perform a project for my supervisor and other times I would be supervising the project of my employees.

Today, I have dual roles in my legal business: (1) manage private client cases and (2) perform services as a contract attorney.  In the first instance, I am responsible for knowing the details of the progression of the case – here I am the leader.  As a contract attorney, I perform assigned projects for another attorney – here I am a worker.

Every manager or supervisor is presumed to be a leader.  They willingly accept the responsibility, get paid for it and should act like it.  A leader must take a regular pulse on the tasks required of their workers.  The workers performance on a project is the ultimate responsibility of the leader.

Here it comes.  The phrase every leader needs to delete from their mental rolodex is . . . . “Where are we on this?”

It is a phrase used haphazardly without consideration of the receiving person. Two of my favorite actresses used it on screen and I thought nothing of it because it wasn’t directed at me. Now my ears perk up like a dog hunting a rabbit. I strive every day for optimal time management and communication, so when the question comes my way - it feels like a kick to the shin.  

“Where are we on this?" has escaped the lips of every one of my supervisors in the 10 years of my professional career.

Meryl Streep (as Miranda) is in a editor meeting in The Devil Wears Prada – Where are we on the spring issue?”

Alicia Florrick is calling her private investigator in Sunday’s episode of The Good Wife – “Where are we on finding [missing person]?”

It seems like a harmless question if you are the asker. 

If you are on the receiving end – it triggers an emotional response.  Here is why. 

1.  It feels confrontational – “you should be done by now”

2.  It feels insulting – “we” suggests a team effort, but the worker is the one doing the work for the leader’s benefit. 

3.  It feels irritating – often times, the leader has no idea about the status of the project or doesn’t take the time to check his or her notes.

4.  It is frustrating – there was no deadline provided to the worker or the ball is currently in the leader’s court and the leader has no idea.

5.  It is passive-aggressive – “WE” is passive, likely the leader avoiding confrontation.  “You” seems too aggressive - “Where are you on this?”

The task of the worker is not a “we” issue.  Thus asking “Where are WE on this?” is not an accurate question.  Unless the leader is literally working on a shared document and it can’t be edited at the same time.

How can a leader get the same response and not piss off the worker?

It starts before the leader asks the question.  When delegating tasks, the leader should provide a deadline. If it is open-ended it suggests there is no level of priority.  Sometimes that is the intent of the leader and an accurate interpretation of the worker. 

For the non-prioritized task, the leader can ask “What is the status of the XYZ project?” 

For this post, I have left the comment section open – let me know your experiences and thoughts.