Leaders, change agents when you hear these words dig deeper

Too direct. Too aggressive. Too consensus-driven. Not confident enough. Not respectful enough.

The words to watch out for are the "too’s" and "not enough’s" even though they seem so benign.

Laura Liswood, in her book on diversity "The loudest duck", first alerted me to the power of these words when she describes how performance appraisals are often tinted by what the appraiser considers the norm.What the female manager sees as "too boastful" behavior in her male employee, may strike another man as this colleague just taking credit for his achievements.What the British manager considers "not ambitious enough" in his Japanese subordinate may simply reflect a cultural norm to not speak up about your career goals.So when you start saying, or hearing, "too this" and "not enough that" it could be worth digging deeper and getting at the norm or cultural expectation that lies beneath it for a fairer evaluation.

And it’s not just in appraising others that this can be helpful. If you’ve ever been involved with a change effort, particularly a cultural or behavioral one, you know how hard it can be to communicate effectively. Understanding people’s frame of reference and norms helps enormously, but it’s not always easy to get at these. Those "too’s" and "not enough’s" are great openings to probe a bit and get at the underlying expectation. For example, if someone says "This new process is too bureaucratic" you might find that their concern is one of supervision: their cultural expectation is that decisions should be made at a lower level. Trying to change this person’s viewpoint by talking about how few steps the process has isn’t going to work, you need to address the expectation that’s beneath their "too" statement.

And to close on a lighter note, digging deeper when you hear "too" or "not enough" is also an easy way to keep the conversation flowing at work events and social functions…

(Originally posted on LinkedIn July 19, 2014)