We all know language is key to leadership. The subtleties, nuances, intonations, and gestures have profound effects on leaders’ credibility and on organizations’ success. Yet, while we think about the customers of our products and services, many of us don't think as much about the ‘hearers’ (customers) of our words when it’s our own people.
When leaders mix up assessments and assertions, as described by Fernando Flores, it can be a huge problem. An assessment is one’s own opinion or judgment. Assessments are: “John is the best person for the job”; “Market X is better than all the others”; “A direct mail campaign is the only way to go.” These are opinions. Assertions are facts; backed up with observable, verifiable evidence and they are either true or false. Assertions are: “The door is open”; “Revenues are up over last year at this time”; “The price of copper is lower than it was last month.”
How many leaders do you know (including yourself!) who state assessments as if they were assertions? Assessing comes naturally to us. Think of the times you’ve told someone “Tomorrow will be better” or “Revenue is down because our sales people can’t sell!” And we say this with total commitment and belief! We claim our own opinion as fact. After all, isn’t our own experience and knowledge adequate? It’s verifiable to us, even if it may not factually be true (maybe revenue is down because manufacturing can’t deliver on time).
When we make assessments sound like assertions, we lose credibility. Our people wonder: “Why is that so?” “How does she or he know that?” “What made him or her draw that conclusion?” This is not to say assessments aren’t vital to success. They are! Assessments are how we call our people to action and change. It is how we help our people understand the whys, hows and whens of what needs to happen for success. That is fundamentally why assessments must be grounded in what is:
- Relevant to the circumstances;
- Sufficient for ‘hearers’ to clearly and specifically understand;
- Truthful about what is and isn’t known for certain.
Grounded assessments give our people a sense of urgency, a comfort that the level of risk/reward is acceptable and that while this may be hard, it must be done.
Assessing an assessment’s relevancy is easier than its sufficiency, since the latter is in the ‘ear of the hearer’. This is where the ‘voice of the employee’ (think ‘voice of the customer’) comes into play. We need to observe and listen to our people just as we do our customers so we understand the why/how/when they need to hear things to understand why action is required. We need to get out of our offices and walk the halls, walk the plant floors, eat in the cafeterias. We can start by watching how our people, peers, bosses use assertions and assessments. Do they make their assessments sound like assertions? Are they grounded? Do they use assertions or is everything really an assessment guised as an assertion?
Real leaders make both assertions and grounded assessments. They don’t make their opinions facts. They listen, learn, and understand what is needed to lead an organization. Their assertions are grounded in what is relevant, sufficient, known, unknown and discoverable and what is frankly unknowable in our world today. Their language, clarity, authenticity and even vulnerability give them the credibility needed for people to listen, hear, believe in the direction and get exited about making it happen.
So, this week, this month, start observing yourself and those around you – and hone your skills in what comes after your “Ass…”.
(Note: thank you to my friend & client, Karl Driggs, for the recent discussions on this very topic)
 Former Chilean engineer, entrepreneur, cabinet minister of Salvador Allende and political prisoner.