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Jul 21, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Today I was reminded in a potent and somewhat painful way that leaders have a truly awesome responsibility.

When leaders speak, others are obligated to listen. When leaders direct, others are obligated to follow. It’s the nature of positional power.

And because formal leaders have positional power, every leader who aspires to greatness should strenuously, passionately, and vigilantly guard against abusing that power.

Irresponsible communication is a form of abuse

“Abuse” is a strong word, and not everyone is comfortable with it.

But shoot, I’m not everyone. I like to call it as I see it. Irresponsible communication, which includes unfounded criticism, opinion presented as fact, subtle and not-so-subtle put downs, demeaning barbs that infantilize and humiliate, and willful misunderstanding, especially when directed at a target not able to question, because the leader has power but the target not so much, is abusive behavior in my book.

It’s true that anyone can be wrong. Anyone can present opinion as fact and not really appreciate the difference.

However, the kind of leader I’m talking about engages in this harmful and counterproductive conduct repeatedly, unrelentingly, and unrepentantly, even when confronted in a respectful and damn-near loving manner, because he or she has forgotten what every great leader should care about most, and that’s the impact on other people.

“No man is an island” and all that jazz

John Donne said it best, and I suppose that’s why his words have endured for centuries. Americans are big on individualism, but the truth is we’re a community whether we like it or not.

Our workplaces are part of that community. So while I’m no Pollyanna who believes work should feel like family, I do believe the workplace should acknowledge our humanity.

And a big way leaders can acknowledge the humanity of their followers is to give a damn about their feelings.

Yes (gasp!), I’m talking about the “f” word — the one that far too many of us think is anathema to good commerce.

“Your feelings are your business?”

So you say, “Well, Crystal, nobody can control how someone else feels. I can’t help it if someone takes something I say or do the wrong way.’”

Listen, with all due respect, that’s BS.

No responsible leader adopts that attitude when it comes to customer opinion of his goods or services or of his company reputation.

No self-respecting leader, or board member, or shareholder, would dare demonstrate such disdain for others’ feelings when discussing the company strategy for launching the “Next Big Thing,” or when approving plans for that press release highlighting the organization’s support for a big-name charity. That leader definitely cares how people feel in those circumstances.

So I have to ask: Have we really sunk so low that others’ emotions are only of concern insofar as they can be manipulated towards our end? I sure hope not.

Anyone can do good

Any leader, anywhere, with enough resources and willpower, can do good.

However, the truly extraordinary leader will take things one step further and endeavor to be good. These leaders won’t strive to make themselves feel needed, important, or useful at someone else’s expense, recognizing that doing so is damaging to the team’s spirit and, frankly, morally wrong.

Now I’m aware some may view this opinion as strident, hokey, and/or a bit backwards, but I beg to differ.

Stephen Covey used to talk about the benefits of making deposits in an emotional bank account as a means of strengthening relationships, and there’s nothing hokey about it.

Respectful communication and other responsible uses of power is valuable currency that buys low turnover, higher levels of employee engagement, loyalty, trust, innovation and creativity as well as the right to look oneself in the mirror without squinting.

Leaders who reject this truism are only buying themselves trouble.

It starts with the heart

As with any other kind of communication, responsible communication starts with the heart.

Leaders who care about their impact on others will be sure to monitor their beliefs and attitudes, and then do the following:

  • Without compelling evidence to the contrary, give employees the benefit of the doubt.
  •  Instead of assuming the worst, ask questions.
  • When employees make a mistake, give them the opportunity to provide a solution and apply it before jumping in with a “fix.”
  • If assumptions must be made, assume employees are capable of learning and problem solving.
  • Recognize that those closest to the work will likely know something about it the leader doesn’t.
  • Understand that most employees want to do a good job.

More than a “nice to have”

Responsible communication is “must have” not just “nice to have,” but most leaders have never received coaching in effective, respectable, and responsible communication. This is particularly shocking considering how important companies claim communication skills are to the efficacy of their operations.

Perhaps your organization could be the exception to the rule?

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.