About a year ago, I pointed out that the words "I will try..." mean that person using those words is secretly planning to fail. (And, yes, I did quote Yoda in the post.)

Earlier today, a colleague of mine (the management consultant Sylvia LaFair) pointed out two additional words that also guarantee failure:

"Yeah, but..."

Bosses hate hearing those two words because employees use them to reject good advice that they don't want to hear. It works like this:

  1. The employee comes in with a complaint.
  2. The boss explains how to address the problem.
  3. The employee says "Yeah, but..." followed by a reason why that solution won't work.
  4. The boss explains how to overcome that objection.
  5. The employee says "Yeah, but..." followed by a reason why THAT won't work.
  6. Etc.

The back-and-forth continues until one of two things happens:

  1. The employee wears the boss down to the point where there's no longer an action plan and both the employee and the boss are helpless. Failure is now inevitable.
  2. The boss gets frustrated and says, "Just do what I say, dammit" and the employee feels resentful and angry, and takes action half-heartedly. Failure is now inevitable.

Neither of those outcomes is ideal. Fortunately, there's  an easy way for bosses to avoid the "Yeah, but..." syndrome:

1. Get the entire complaint on the table.

When an employee comes in with a complaint, don't leap immediately to providing your advice, even if the solution seems obvious to you. Instead, ask a few questions that flesh out the complaint, especially questions that surface how the employee feels about the situation. Examples:

  • When you think about this what else comes in your mind?
  • What drove you to bring this to my attention right now?
  • How would you feel if we could come up with a workable solution?

Getting everything on the table makes it more difficult for the complaint to dribble out in a series of "Yeah, but..." responses.

2. Ask the employee how he or she would solve the problem.

Note that the complaint is now a problem, which implies that there is a solution.

In most cases, simply getting the entire problem onto the table will help the employee to see what he or she needs to do to address the problem, even if it's just something like "suck it up and move on."

In some cases, the employee will say: "I don't know what to do." If this happens, respond with, "Well, if you did know what to do, what would that be?" This restatement of the question can often "short-circuit" self-defeating mental helplessness.

In either case, listen quietly to whatever the employee has to say, then move to Step 3.

If the employee remains stuck on "I don't know," say something like, "I can tell you're really frustrated." Then move to Step 3.

3. Provide your best advice.

Start by saying something like this: "I am now going to give you my opinion of how we should address this problem. After I give you my opinion, I'm willing to answer questions about how we might implement it, but that's all."

Provide your best advice, incorporating (when practical) whatever suggestions the employee surfaced in Step 2. Then ask: "Any questions?"

If the employee responds with implementation questions, answer them to the best of your ability.

However, if the employee starts explaining why your advice won't work (aka "Yeah, but..."), hold up your hands, palm outwards, and say: "That's my best advice. I'd like you to try it for [period of time] and if, after you've made that effort, we can revisit the issue then."

End the meeting or move onto another topic.

Why This Works

The process above allows you and the employee to turn complaints into problems and find possible solutions to those problems. It draws upon the creativity of the employee both to understand the entire problem and to devise a workable solution.

Worst case, the process ends with "that's my best advice." While that's functionally similar to "Just do what I say, dammit," it's less likely to create resentment, especially when the employee feels that he or she has been "heard out."

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