In the context of the 2021 World Mental Health day and the increasing importance for organisations and leaders to be leading and managing well-being in the workplace more effectively, there are a couple of statements that I hear leaders use over and over again that completely undermine all the work we are doing around mental well-being.

I share below what I believe are the five most significant statements that we as leaders need to stop using:

  1. "Don't bring me problems, bring me a solution."
  2. "How can I help you?"
  3. "You can say no, but..."
  4. "Are you OK?" without sharing first.
  5. "I understand..."

"Don't bring me problems, bring me a solution."

How often as a leader have you used this statement or heard this statement being used around us in our organisations?  It has almost become one of those statements that are seen as representing great leadership (without realising the unintentional negative impact).

While the intention of the statement “bring me a solution not a problem” is to empower our people, there is an unintentional consequence.  The unintended consequence is that people hear “don’t bring problems”, which essentially shuts down help seeking. If there is one thing we need to do to change well-being in organisations and society, it is to remove barriers for help-seeking. We need to stop saying “bring me a solution not a problem” and change this to an alternative that encourages help seeking behaviours.

Stop saying: "Don't bring me problems, bring me a solution." Instead say: "Bring any problem, even if not solution, and we can explore possible options."

"How can I help you?"

I am pretty sure that everyone of you reading this right now has used this statement/question with people around you.  Intuitively it feels like the right thing to say.  Unfortunately, the word ‘help’ implies ‘fixing’, which ultimately can lead to disempowering the individual we are trying to assist in the first place (Psychologists refer to this as secondary gain or enabling).  While our intention is absolutely spot on, the impact is unhelpful.  Essentially, what feels like helping is not helping. 

We need to replace the word ‘help’ with ‘support’.  The word ‘support’ clearly describes the intention to support, but also articulates the boundaries of responsibility i.e. a leader’s responsibility is to support, the individual’s responsibility is to make the necessary changes to improve.

Stop saying "How can I help you?" and instead say: "How can I support you?"

"You can say no, but..."

The confidence and ability to say ‘no’ is fundamental to us managing our boundaries and making better choices about where we spend our energy, and ultimately our well-being.  As leaders, once again with the best intention, we know this and therefore when we make a request that requires discretionary effort we add in: “but you can say No”. 

This feels like we are doing the right thing, but in fact what we are doing is potentially further contributing to internal conflict of choices, and more importantly contributing to increased feelings of guilt.  We know that feeling guilty about choices between personal and work commitments, particularly regular feelings of guilt, contribute significantly to mental health decline. We need to eliminate guilt.

To eliminate guilt, instead of saying: "You can say no, but..." we should instead say: "I have said 'no' to the request from the stakeholder, so you can...".  In other words, as leaders instead of pushing the decision of ‘no’ onto the individual, there are times when we need to say ‘no’ for our team and demonstrate permission to say ‘no’.

"Are you OK?" without sharing first.

I fundamentally believe that the visibility of mental health through RUOK days and other mental health initiatives are making a significant difference in the willingness of people to talk more openly about mental health and it is shifting the stigma surrounding mental health.

However, we also know that help seeking behaviour is not changing as rapidly, and that people are still afraid or the negative judgement or negative consequences of reaching out for support.  My biggest issue with asking the question: “are you OK?”, which intuitively feels like the right thing to do in addition to we are being told to do it, is that if we ask this question without having first demonstrated vulnerability ourselves, how is it that we then expect the person to be vulnerable with us.

We cannot expect someone to open up and be vulnerable when we ask “are you OK” if we have not been vulnerable first.  It is a ridiculous notion that we think by asking the question people are going to share openly if we haven’t done the same first.  We need to stop asking “are you OK” until we have first shared why and how we ourselves are not OK.

Stop saying "Are you OK?" expecting vulnerability when no vulnerability demonstrated by the requester instead: Share first, be vulnerable first by saying "I am not OK because...".

"I understand..."

Another statement that pops out so easily as leaders is the phrase: “I understand…”.  Recently while facilitating a leadership program I was supporting leaders through role-plays and one of the most common statements I heard was “I understand, but…”.  Firstly, we can very rarely truly understand what someone is experiencing and therefore the statement has little validity.  Secondly, it often comes across as condescending and is likely to escalate the emotional reaction than to diffuse the emotion.

We are far better off demonstrating understanding by describing the emotion we observe in the other person i.e. emotive empathy, or using a personal narrative to describe a similar experience you may have had.  Once you have shared the story you might then invite the person to consider whether the sharing of the story provides them with any ideas of what they possibly might be able to do.

We need to stop saying: "I understand..." and instead say: "I have no way of understanding what you are going through, but I am keen to hear about...".

Deliberately Conscious of What We Say

Of the tens of thousands of leaders I have worked with over the years, the vast majority have an intent to be a great leader and support their teams to be the most effective they can be.  However, the way we apply the intent very often results in a less positive impact.

Much of this negative impact comes from what we say that unintentionally has a negative impact.  If we are more deliberately conscious of what we say and consider the actual meaning of what we are saying and the potential negative impact, we might identify a couple of statements that we commonly use that are not actually helpful.

I hope that the statements I have outlined above prompt you to reflect on what you say and consider how you might say more clearly what you actually intend to say.

When our words reflect more accurately our true authentic intent we improve the positive impact that we have as a leader on people around us.

About the author

Gregory Bayne is one of the Directors of Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia.  Greg works with senior and executive leaders assisting them to make shifts in the way they work, the way they think and the way they live their lives to become better leaders, colleagues and team members. Greg has a particular focus on assisting leaders create a culture or accountability and high performance. His expertise and knowledge is around building and developing a culture of accountability, leading high performing teams, and getting the most out of people to deliver the highest standards of work. We cultivate sustainable behavioural change in individuals, teams and organisations to drive a performance culture.

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