Communicate Like A Leader

Your subordinates must know the difference between offers, invitations, requests, and commands.

In What You Want and When You Don’t I wrote about why it is so hard to ask for what we want from our families, our romantic partners, our investors, and from our superiors. However, Leaders have a special obligation to communicate their wantings well, because any utterance can take on the meaning of a command — even if it was just a causal thinking-out-loud kind of speculation.

I discovered this when my research group expanded from four doctoral students to 12, and I found that my students were spending additional energy trying to figure out what it was I wanted. Sometimes:

  • When I thought I was suggesting, they thought I was commanding.
  • When I thought I was prioritizing, they thought I was brainstorming.
  • When I thought I was asking, they thought I was accusing.

Finally, one of my mentors asked me, “Tom, how do your subordinates know the difference between your invitations, your requests, and your commands?”

I had no idea.

Neither did anyone else in my organization, and it was causing confusion.

I decided that I would establish a protocol — i.e., a series of phrases that makes the distinction between these three different ways of communicating what I want. I tested them out in conversations with my students, and with my daughter Emma Seager. Eventually, we recorded the protocols in this video.

Our organization uses a phrasing protocol to make clear when we are communicating offers, invitations, requests, and commands.

The first protocol is an invitation. It’s always OK for a subordinate to decline an invitation, so it’s important for the Leader to signal to the subordinate that it’s only an invitation. The protocol, “Are you interested?” signals an invitation in my organization. The critical thing to remember about invitations is that the Leader must first make a commitment.

The Leader’s commitment must precede the invitation.

For example, the CEO might want to challenge a mid-level manager with a new initiative. The invitation protocol demands that the Leader first explain the organizational commitment to the new initiative, like:

“I’m going to spend $75 million to launch 32 new stores in 17 different states. It’s requires a project manager that is willing to travel, be responsive to multiple and conflicting stakeholder interests, and will persist in the face of criticism.

“Are you interested?”

In my family and personal life, I use less formal invitation protocols, but I still precede with commitment. For example, maybe I want some company when I’m going to the ballet, or the observatory, or sailing, or listen to some live music. That invitation might sound like this:

“I’ve got two tickets to the Blues Traveler show at the brew pub. They play rock, blues and do lots of long jams and improvisation. I’ll be dressing real simple: jeans and T-shirt, and dancing my ass off.

“Wanna come?”

Remember that invitations are about offering options, not obligations. It’s always OK to decline an invitation. It should be clear that if the mid-level manager (or prospective concert companion) doesn’t want to accept the invitation, there are no consequences, no hard feelings. Someone else will accept the invitation.

The protocol, “Are you interested?”(“Wanna come?”) is easy for a subordinate (companion) to respond to. They can say, “Yes,” without necessarily committing. There’s room for negotiation and conversation that leads to commitment, counter offers, or better ideas.

The second protocol is a request, and there are two options:

  1. “Will you… ?” and
  2. “I want you to… .”

Both are more powerful (i.e., influential) than the invitation protocol, and “I want you…” is even more powerful than “Will you?” because the former is a declarative rather than a question.

In fact, the most powerful of all these protocols has proven to be “I want you… .” When I finally mustered the courage to say, “I want you…” I was a bit dumbfounded by the regularity with which people would give me everything I wanted.

I want you…” is so effective that we have a rule in our organization that it can only be used for moral purposes — i.e., those requests that we believe (to the best of our knowledge) will be good for the person of whom we are making the request.

For example, if I’m telling my students “I want you to study for the exam,” it’s not to benefit me. It’s to benefit them. That’s a moral request.

Leaders can have a tremendous influence over their organizations when they use the protocol, “I want you… .”

The less influential form of request, the “Will you… ?” is a way to make a direct, unambiguous request — including a challenge. It’s just not as persuasive, and there are times when a Leader must allow the subordinate a bit more space in the conversation to respond unfettered by the desire to please the Leader.

In either case, there are still no consequences for declining a request.

The third protocol is for commands.

Commands are rare in my organization. For example, safety concerns might make use of a non-negotiable command a necessity. So might a situation or behavior calling for disciplinary action or correction.

There are consequences for declining commands, so they must be employ unambiguous signalling.

In my organization and my family, I start commands with “Please… .” It’s sometimes an unfortunate use of good manners, because people who haven’t been onboarded well sometimes confuse the word “Please…” with weakness, or optionality, or a lack of urgency, when just the opposite is true.

Still, commands must be signaled by the very first word of the command. I’ve seen other Leaders presage a command by beginning with a name, rank, or title, as in, “Harry, call back the customer and offer a full refund. Immediately,” and I’m not a fan. Use of a name is very personal and use of a title or rank is very depersonal. I choose instead to be polite, despite the confusion it sometimes causes the uninitiated.

Another way that some Leaders (e.g., parents) signal commands is to use profanity, as in “Put on your goddamn personal protective equipment.” This has the advantage of communicating urgency, but it often fails the test of signalling with the first word of the command, and fails the test of good manners.

So I use, “Please… .” That way, when I’m in public and I issue a command, my subordinates understand and can act on the protocol without feeling humiliated by receiving a direct order in front of others (to whom it appears I have made a polite request).

Since I recorded the Invite/Request/Command protocol, I discovered that it’s also helpful to have a protocol for offers — if for no other reason than to help other people get what they want.

Lastly, there is a special kind of invitation called an offering, that we often use in our personal and professional relationships. It’s not quite the same as the invitation that requires a commitment from the Leader, because it is offering a gift, for which there can be no expectations or consequences.

The protocol we use offerings is “May I… ?”

As in, “May I get you a glass of water?”

The “May I … ?” protocol avoids having to ask our own people what they want. Because everyone in our organization is now trained in how to ask for what they want, we don’t bother to ask. Instead, we offer.

What we discovered about these protocols is that they work both up and down the organization. That is, once I adopted them for my communications, my subordinates adopted them with me (and each other).

The impact has been to expand the capacity for Leadership throughout my group, improve coordination, and eliminate confusion.