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Adjusting how you're understood with new authority

(January 22, 2024 Newsletter)

One of the experiences my clients often describe as frustrating, even baffling, is the ways in which their communication is received differently as they rise in the ranks of their org or company.

“I’m the same person – why are people responding differently to me now?” they ask.

Short answer? It’s not you, it’s them.

Or rather, it’s both of you since you have some work to do if you’re in this situation.

Let’s take an example: In a meeting, you make a suggestion that was half-baked. You think you’re brainstorming like everyone else. But the next morning, it’s been executed and is in your inbox, which is shocking, since you weren’t sure it was going to be the right next step and definitely don’t remember giving any orders.

  • Now, do you go forward with it, since it’s been done (leading to moving ahead with a project that might not succeed), or do you tell the person it was just an idea and send them back to the drawing board or ask they hold off until a final decision is made (risking being perceived as indecisive and slow)?

What’s going on? This is where the realignment I often talk about comes in – a classic example of needing to adjust one’s leadership identity and communication style to match back up after some kind of new reality sets in.

  • Whether we like it or not, folks have expectations of how managers at certain levels “should” speak, so they scan for it unconsciously so they can respond accordingly.

Why it matters: The period in which these kinds of miscommunications happen tends to be a sensitive one anyway, as you’re adjusting to multiple changes at once… more meetings (and less free time), more complexity, fewer clear answers, etc.

  • Establishing rapport with your team can feel high stakes, as you’re figuring out who you want to be as they’re also expecting you to know – or at least that’s what your inner chatterbox will be saying.

Try these steps: 

  1. Start with phrases like “I have an idea,”“here’s a thought,” or “one thing we could consider.” If you see extra writing or typing happening, clarify that you want pushback on it and to choose the best idea, which doesn’t have to be yours.

  2. Speak last. In your “proving yourself” phase you might feel the tendency to jump in sooner, but be aware that the power might have shifted in your direction and so you have an obligation to balance it back out.

  3. End meetings with a summary of next steps, that way if anyone took anything you said and flipped it into an action item before you meant for it to be taken as such, you can cut it from the list or adapt it to a “further research” item instead of a “get it done” item.

  4. When misunderstandings do happen, put on your scientist hat together with the person and figure out what you said that made them think you were giving an order when you weren’t. That way, together you can ensure that you adjust your language and they adjust their hearing from now on.

It may feel counterintuitive to do more hedging and minimizing as you gain authority, but remember, there are no binaries (always/never rules) in communication. In this kind of case, making clear that something truly is just an idea and not a directive yet will make the rapport-building smoother for you, your team, and colleagues alike.


The Coaching Corner

If you could get better at one thing in this job that would make the biggest difference, what would it be?

You don’t have to wait until performance reviews to ask this kind of big question. In order to not put people on the spot, you can let team members know that this will be your “question of the week” in your next 1:1 so they have time to think about it in advance.

Offer encouragement on whatever they answer (even if you could think of something else you wish they’d said). Here are some follow up questions:

  • I’m excited that you’re excited for that. Tell me, how did you come to that answer?

  • What and who else would be impacted by that improvement?

(Inspiration for the question comes from the Immunity to Change course I did last week... more on that below)



Last week I spent three days doing a training on a coaching tool called “Immunity to Change” - I originally learned about that concept from this podcast episode of “Dare to Lead” (part 1 and part 2) You don’t need a 3-day course to be wowed by the power of this tool.


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