March 4, 2013
When I first received a copy of "The Manager's Phrase Book," I laughed.
I laughed long and hard.
The book is a collection of more than 3,000 canned phrases a manager can use in different situations, rated on sliding scales such as "casual to formal" or "encouraging to punitive."
For example, in the category "How to Boost Your Team's Confidence," the most subtle phrase is: "I'd like to see you guys projecting a bit more confidence."
Well, that sure is handy!
Regular readers of this column know that one of the tenets of my workplace philosophy is that every office should have a soft-serve ice cream machine. But equally important is that workers, bosses and managers should not be afraid to act like human beings.
A reference guide of prefabricated comments would be useful for programming a Roomba to become vice president of sales, but not for getting people in the workplace to loosen up and be themselves.
Keith Murnighan, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, said he, too, bristles at anything that drives business leaders away from authenticity.
"Young people, what they're looking for is people who are authentic," Murnighan said. "I think that's a perfect word for the way leaders need to succeed and deal with people. You have to be authentic; you have to tell people the truth."
This applies to more than just the authenticity-seeking millennials now entering the workforce. I'm not sure who decided people in leadership positions should adopt personas different from their own, but it's more common than not, leading workers of all ages to demand greater sincerity.
"You have to sincerely care about the people you work with," said Murnighan, who wrote a book called "Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader." "If you don't care about them sincerely, they will read that. They're not fools. You don't have to like them, you just have to let them know you care. You care about their careers, and you care about their families and, of course, you care about them getting the job done."
In short, be a decent human being.
Unfortunately, that seems to come hard for some people, so they seek shortcuts, such as a book of phrases to dish out as needed.
"What I'm seeing is a movement toward books like this," said Jamie Showkeir, an Arizona-based leadership coach. "The longing is to simplify leadership or management to the point that people can do it with a collection of phrases and techniques. But good, long-lasting leaders manage from a perspective of intention and authenticity."
Showkeir co-authored the book "Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment" with his wife, Maren Showkeir. She said people are often afraid to be themselves at work, fearing "there will be some negative consequence to that."
"It's the (workplace) culture that creates this notion that we can't be who we are," she said. "We don't even see each other as people sometimes; we see people as tools that are there to get a task accomplished."
That, Jamie Showkeir said, is because most companies still operate under some form of the "command and control" model that dates to the Industrial Revolution:
"It goes like this: 'I don't trust you, I don't believe you can do a good job, and my role is to make sure that I'm clear about what I tell you and follow up on everything and give you praise if you do it well and slap you on the hand if you don't.' It's all about the parenting model of leadership that creates this whole dysfunctional set of relationships."
They're dysfunctional because we're interacting the way we think people in the working world should interact instead of interacting like normal people. We morph into the caricature of how a manager or employee should behave.
None of this is to say that everyone needs to gather each afternoon for hugs. But we do need to be more open about who we are and, at the risk of sounding too technical, chill out.
Because I'm a decent human being (most of the time), I reached out to Patrick Alain, the French-born author of "The Manager's Phrase Book." I told him my concerns, and we had a thoughtful conversation in which he said the book grew out of his experience coming to the United States in 2004 and struggling to find the right words in business situations.
He said his previous book — "The Leader Phrase Book" — has sold well in the states and internationally, reflecting the need for such a resource.
"Who would've thought there was such a need?" Alain said. "It sells both in the translated version and its original English version. It shows there is a market for people who don't know what to say. Many of the readers are shy. It doesn't come naturally for them. There are also many people that are not very creative, people who are very introverted or reserved."
I could argue that those people might be better off if they weren't in management positions, but I suppose that's splitting hairs.
I understand Alain's intentions and certainly credit him with filling a void.
But I'd love to see managers spend less time looking for the right thing to say and more time saying what they think is right.
Samples from "The Manager's Phrase Book"
When an employee wants time off: "I don't see any problem with that."
When an employee is burned out: "I see some symptoms of burnout here; I sure hope I'm wrong."
How to close a meeting: "Alrighty, let's get out of here!"
When you need to instill calm: "Everybody here needs to take a chill pill."
How to say no to a superior: "No."
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