Want to be a more inspirational leader? Bite your tongue

by Carol Schillios, Schillios Consulting & Fabric of Life

Remember when “constructive criticism” was considered an effective way to give feedback that would somehow illicit behavior change? Authority figures would tell an employee their bad behaviors (criticism), then tell them how to behave effectively (constructive).

Pointing out employee faults is not leadership. Telling employees what to do is not leadership. Corrective telling is old fashioned parenting: “Get your elbows off the table” “Go do your homework.” “Pay attention in class.”


I admire the way my friend Sue parented. We were in her kitchen sipping coffee when the phone rang. Her son Ray’s high school teacher called to say Ray was consistently late and not turning in his homework. Sue listened quietly, then said, “Excuse me a moment, you’re actually talking to the wrong person.” She put the phone down and yelled up the stairs, “Raycie, there’s a call for you.”

After Ray finished the call, Sue did nothing more than ask questions. She’d go silent after each one, giving Ray time to think through his response. “What are your teacher’s concerns?” (Silence) “What will the impact be on your grades if you continue being late to class and not turn homework in?” (Silence) “How committed are you to changing and what help do you need?” (Silence)

This was no typical parental lecture. This was brilliance.

Here are two strategies I learned from that morning coffee with Sue. When you master them, they will catapult your employees to higher levels of self-confidence and responsibility. The strategies do require you to master the art of biting your tongue.

Strategy #1: Don’t allow employees to complain to you about issues they have with others. Facilitate employees going directly to the person with whom they have issues.

When you get sucked into managing employees’ relationships with others, you reinforce dependency rather than self-development. For most of us, in childhood our parents intervened to manage sibling conflict. “Moooom, Susie took my bike.” Mom typically reacted by grabbing us each by our respective collars, admonishing us in her commanding voice, and marching us to the door with instructions to, “quit fighting and play together nicely.”

Thus we learned that authority figures managed conflicts for us. Mom never sat us down to discuss why my sister had taken my bike. “Could it be your sister retaliated because you hit her with a stick?” Mom might have helped us learn action/reaction/impact sooner but that’s not how parenting worked in the 60’s.

Fast forward to adulthood and we observe our childhood programming in action. Employees go to their supervisor authority to resolve conflicts they have with others. Be gentle. It’s learned behavior. A strong leader changes the pattern by developing employee problem-solving skills.

Once the leader facilitates understanding the issue and its impact, it’s time for the complaining employee to choose how they – yes they — will approach the situation. They MUST choose either #1 or #2 below. If they don’t, #3 becomes the default choice.

Choice #1: Ignore the behavior (caveat: Employee may no longer talk about the issue with you or others and not build resentment)

Choice #2: Address the person confidentially alone, face to face using respectful tone and identify the behavior and its impact. Then make agreements. (If there are no measurable behaviors or impact other than emotional reactions, then it’s likely a personal issue; go back to #1)

Choice #3: Third party intervention to facilitate #2 (Supervisor, peer mentor if you have such a program or HR.)

Choice #4: Move on to new adventures (another department, branch, CU, state, continent…you get the idea)

Adults are generally rational thinkers when given a logical non-threatening framework. The leader’s job is to guide employees through the process. To ask reality-check questions. To show empathy for everyone involved. And to bite their tongues.

Strategy #2: Master the art of OPEN QUESTIONS and SILENCE.

We’ve all been to dozens of communication workshops. We understand the What, How, and When of open questions. What we neglected is to re-program our brains to ask open questions before telling.

I once observed a supervisor coach tellers to recognize member profile cues. Here’s what the supervisor said after one member left the counter: “You missed that Mr. Smith doesn’t have a loan with us; isn’t it likely he has a car loan somewhere? You could have mentioned our upcoming car loan promotion.  Also, notice how he has a large amount in checking. You should have mentioned our free financial advisor services. Next time try that approach.

I watched the teller’s face flush and her body sag with discouragement. Sadly, the supervisor reverted to the critical parent, “you-didn’t-do-your-homework,” which causes most adults to feel like reprimanded children.

If you want to inspire and build employee confidence, the open-question-silence approach is your best strategy. Here’s what’s more empowering in the teller scenario: “What do you know about this member, based on his profile?” (Silence) “What is the likelihood Mr. Smith has a car loan somewhere if he doesn’t have one with us?”  (Silence) “What question might you ask him to find out where he might have a car loan?” (Silence) “What do you notice about his checking account?(Silence)

Using open questions and silence, a leader helps employees develop observation and strategic thinking skills.

I was blessed to have Augustin Kang from World Council of CU’s as an influential mentor. As I prepared to make a presentation at the Seoul Korea World Council Forum I asked Mr. Kang’s advice for the best way to approach my session. He guided me to facilitate a dialogue instead of giving a speech with this insightful reply: “Miss Carol. People don’t judge the success of a session by how much you tell them. They judge the success by how much they talk.”

Next time you lead by telling, please bite your tongue.

Carol Schillios

Carol Schillios

Carol Schillios is a maverick change-maker. Her passion for credit unions spans 4 decades as a master trainer and keynote speaker at state, national and international events. She’s a ... Details