Some mistakes are worse than others. Even more importantly, some mistakes last longer than others. As Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

When it comes to managing people, the sad fact is that one ill-considered conversation can wipe out the work of months. While an employee may forget all the times you were prepared and focused for a meeting, he or she is unlikely to forget the one stupid thing you said while passing in the hallway.

In this column, I want to point out a couple of common mistakes technical managers make when communicating with their staff and give some tips on how you can avoid or overcome these errors.
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Don’t toss out numbers casually
Did you ever see the greeting card that talked about what we say to dogs and what dogs hear us say? We say something like, “Now be a good dog, Ginger, and fetch me my slippers. Good dog, Ginger, good dog.” Ginger, on the other hand, hears “Xxxx xxxx xxxx Ginger xxxx xxxx xxxx Ginger xxxx xxxx.”

The truth is, most of us hear like Ginger hears, at least when the conversation turns to topics we really care about. We tune everything else out and focus on what we want to hear.

If you’ve ever hired anyone, you know exactly what I mean. Suppose a job candidate asks you about the compensation for a particular position, and you reply, truthfully enough, “$41K to $48K.” In your mind, you’ve given the candidate a salary range. However, what your candidate heard was that the job pays $48,000 a year.

This misperception is perfectly reasonable. After all, most of us have, shall we say, healthy egos? If an employer tells you that a job pays within a certain range, you’re probably going to assume that you belong at the high end of that range.

So, what should you do in that situation (assuming you can’t pass the buck to HR and let them do the negotiating)? While there’s no perfect answer to that question, I’d suggest two strategies:

  • If you’re trying to hire someone at the lower end of the salary range, then mention only the lower number—don’t give the candidate the expectation that there is a higher number.
  • If you’re resigned to paying a candidate at the high end of the range, go ahead and mention the entire salary range. It won’t cost you any more than you have budgeted, and you’ll get the benefit of showing the candidate that you’re willing to pay at the high end of your salary range.

Don’t leave anything on the table
We’ve talked before about the need to manage expectations with your staff. Part of managing expectations is making sure that you don’t leave anything on the table. In other words, don’t promise anything unless you are certain you can deliver.

For example, suppose you’re walking the hallway and a support tech grabs you to lobby for a new network traffic analyzer handheld for troubleshooting the cabling problems you’re experiencing. Without breaking stride, you answer, “Sounds reasonable. Look, I’m late for a meeting, but I’ll see what I can do.”

From your point of view, you’re not making any commitment. But in the mind of the support tech, you’ve practically agreed to buy the unit. After all, didn’t you say that it was a reasonable request?

This assumption doesn’t matter if the unit isn’t too expensive and you’ve got money in your budget to handle the request. However, suppose the thing costs $15K and you’ve already used up your capital budget for the year. In that case, you’ve unnecessarily burned up some good will with one of your staff members.

How much better, in that situation, to say, “Look, I’m late for a meeting right now, and I don’t have the budget in front of me. Send me an e-mail detailing what you want, and I’ll look at it. But remember, I can’t promise anything until I look at the budget, okay?”

It may take slightly longer to deliver that second message, but your message will be clear. The support tech won’t be thinking that the new unit is in the bag. Later, if he tries to argue differently, you can always say, “Wait a second. I told you specifically that I couldn’t promise anything until I looked at the budget, remember?”

Take time to think
At this point, you might be saying, “Look, this is ridiculous! I’ve got a ton of things to do, and I simply don’t have time to plot out a strategy for every conversation I have with an employee.” Without trying to sound flip, I’d argue that you can’t afford not to take the time. After all, unless you’re actually writing the code, running the backups, or installing the new motherboard, it’s your team that’s actually doing the work. Your job is to provide the proper direction, motivation, and guidance. You do that by talking with your group.

That is your job, isn’t it?
How important is it to be precise about what you say and how you say it? Or is it more important to insist that people improve their listening skills so that they don’t misinterpret you? Join the discussion.