When a “Casual Comment” is Anything But

Stacked WoodLet’s say you’ve recently become a manager.  No doubt, you’re happy with your achievement.  You have a lot more authority to make decisions and to influence others.  Has it occurred to you yet that there could be a downside to your authority?

Kerry Patterson, in the VitalSmarts newsletter, has written an excellent cautionary tale he calls “the captain’s fireplace”.  You can read the original story for yourself, but here’s a quick summary…  The captain of a military base notices some scrap wood in a dumpster and calls to make sure no one else wants it before he grabs some for his fireplace.

The ensign he talks to offers to find out about the scrap wood and calls the chief of supply to make sure it’s okay.  The warrant officer makes a call, and so on, until the captain’s wife eventually calls to thank them for the wood.   Outside in the supply yard, people are grumbling about how they had to cut brand new boards to fit the captain’s fireplace, when they couldn’t afford other vital supplies.

What happened?

Well, if you played the old game called “telephone” when you were a kid, you already know how this message got distorted as it passed from one person to the next.  As each person heard that the wood was for the captain, they added their own interpretation of what should be delivered.

I once had a similar incident.  Soon after acquiring a new business, I asked a casual question about dress code policies.  The HR, eager to please the new management, said she wasn’t sure and asked me for an example, so that she could find out if they had anything similar.  I sent over a dress code one-pager I had seen at another facility, to show an example of what it might contain.  Within hours, I started hearing rumors of how “the new management team” was forcing a change in the dress code, preventing people from wearing ball caps on the job.

It wasn’t my intention to change the policy.  My question was idle curiosity and her intention was to understand what I meant.  But as the message passed from one person to the next, the “example” I sent over took on the force of an edict.  It only took a couple of phone calls to correct the misunderstanding, but it still rattled the employees who were already a little skittish about what might change under the new owners.

Most managers have one of these stories.  They’ve made an offhand comment, out of idle curiosity or as a simple suggestion, and then find that the team has pulled out all the stops – with significant time and resources – to make it happen.

Leaders have to be diligent about their words.  But even more importantly, they have to develop a culture that allows workers to ask, “Is this really what you mean?”  If anyone along the chain felt free to question leaders, problems could be corrected quickly.

That kind of questioning takes tremendous trust in the workplace, which takes time for new leaders to develop.  In the meantime, tell your team the story of the captain’s fireplace and ask them to challenge you before they follow an order that feels out of place.  It will go a long way to creating the remarkable culture of trust you really want to lead.


photo credit:  Rick Harrison, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sovietuk/11934687/


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *