It Matters What You Say or It's Alive! An Employee Awakens

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.017 March 2005

I supervise people. Most of you reading this also supervise people. I have observed that what I say as a supervisor often means much to someone who works for me. Most of the time, however, I don't realize that my statements mean anything to anyone.

About 18 months ago I was supervising a group of six engineers. I was talking to an older engineer named Dave (not his real name) about a situation he was facing. Dave had an idea of what to do, but he was disappointed to tell me that people were pushing him to do something that he thought was a poor choice.

I don't remember the situation or the alternatives, but I do remember telling Dave, "Well, that doesn't make sense. Your idea sounds much better. Let's do that."

Dave hesitated a moment, then said, "Okay, I'll do that."

In the next month, Dave and I had several more conversations like this. Dave would describe his situation and then in a dry, half-joking manner tell me what people in the office would normally do. Then he would tell me what he would do instead. After some thought, Dave's idea always sounded better than the status quo. I would approve Dave's approach, and he would do it.

I later learned that Dave had awoken from a slumber on the job after our first several conversations. He once told me - again in a dry, half-joking manner - that my ideas of how to do things had inspired him. He was applying himself at work again.

He said that his conversations with other supervisors were quite different from our conversations. He would describe a situation to another supervisor, describe the status quo action, and then explain why the status quo wasn't a good idea.

His prior supervisors would reply, "Well, that doesn't make much sense, but that's the way we do it here, so go ahead and do it even though you don't agree with it."

Those daily directions to "do the nonsensical status quo" had put Dave to sleep.

I learned several things from working with Dave these past 18 months.

(1) One little statement ("Your idea sounds much better. Let's do that.") can be significant to some person.

(2) Most of the time, I'm not "making a significant statement" when I say something.

(3) Regardless of my intent, as the supervisor, what I say usually means something to someone.

In my relationship with Dave, I am happy to report that my statements meant a lot to reviving a capable person (even though I wasn't trying to do that).

My advice for supervisors, especially me, is to strive to do the right thing every day. It is easy to surrender to fatigue and tell people to wallow in the status quo. It is much harder to listen while people describe their situation, their alternatives, and the one choice they think will be best.

I'm busy; most of you are busy, and all this listening takes lots of time. Nevertheless, spending the time and saying the encouraging words may awaken someone from their slumber. An employee may come alive before your eyes.

What happened to Dave? He was productive, creative, and accomplished much this past year. He retired at the end of March 2005 and is looking forward to pursuing several cherished endeavors. Dave had a big smile on his face everyday for the past couple of months. Many people, especially me, enjoyed being around him.