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Back off from bossiness

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management

When John Shiely became chief executive of Briggs & Stratton Corp. in 2001, he learned to modulate his communication style. Instead of telling staffers what he wanted, he asked questions and listened without interrupting.

Through genial dialogue, he enabled employees to draw their own conclusions. That saved him from lecturing or barking orders.

“I call it ‘Management by Columbo,’” Shiely says with a laugh, referring to the classic TV show starring Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo. “If you put a question at the end of a sentence, you run less risk of causing employees to go in the wrong direction. As a leader, you can never get in trouble with a question as opposed to an imperative statement.”

Shiely has given some of his managers a videotape of the beloved show as a training tool. He asks them to observe how Columbo pries information out of people by posing questions rather than pontificating.

Another benefit of polite questioning is it limits what you say. If you opine about whatever pops into mind, you can come across as an out-of-touch, pompous boss.

“I learned as CEO to be more sensitive to the effect of my insights and comments on my employees,” says Shiely, who runs a $2 billion company that is the world’s top maker of small engines for outdoor power equipment. “You have to be more circumspect when you’re managing people—and preprocess everything you say.”

Shiely admits that weighing the impact of his comments before he makes them deadens his spontaneity. But he adds, “Trying to understand who the person is you’re communicating with and how they’ll interpret your message is a key to leadership.”

Apply Shiely’s approach and think before you speak. Empathize with employees so you consider what you’re about to say through their eyes. That should soften your hard edges and make you less bossy.


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