Careful v. Cautious: One Helps You – The Other Holds You Back

Be careful!

It’s what your mom shouted out the door as you left with the car for the first time. It’s probably also what your dad said when he taught you how to balance a checkbook. And it’s a quality most of us want in a brain surgeon or financial planner.

But being careful isn’t the same thing as being cautious.

For example: Imagine you’re about to make a big presentation.

How would you enter the room if you’re cautious? Chances are you’d come across as worried and anxious before you even opened your mouth.

Now imagine what a careful person might do. They’d go over their slides 37 times, double check their facts, arrive 30 minutes early, and walk into the room knowing that they had done everything they could do to set themselves up for success.

Cautious people worry that they’re not doing the right thing. Careful people gather enough information to make the best decisions they can.

As we scratch and claw our way out of the recession, the prevailing emotion in business today is fear. Companies are reluctant to make new investments. People are worried about the future. Organizations are often paralyzed by angst. Those left standing have emerged battered, sober, and determined not to repeat the excessive mistakes of the past.

Being careful in an unforgiving economic climate is a good thing. It’s also an intelligent approach when it comes to taking care of your possessions, nurturing your relationships, deciding who to marry, maintaining good dental hygiene, and the aforementioned brain surgery and financial planning. (Money and scalpels aren’t areas where you want to play fast and loose.)

Yet when we cross the line from careful to cautious, we often do ourselves more harm than good.

Words only have the power that we give them. But the adjectives that we use to describe ourselves set the tone for our decision-making.

The difference between cautious and careful is that cautious is an emotion, a fear based emotion at that. Being careful is an action; they’re things you can do, like gathering data, getting additional input, studying experts, etc.

Being cautious makes you afraid; being careful can make you more confident.

Compare and contrast a cautious boss or parent with a careful one.

How would the cautious leader handle the company or family finances? How would that differ from the careful person? Who do you think will wind up with more money in the bank?

What about providing direction for the team? Would you rather work for a cautious leader or a careful one? Who would you rather have working for you?

How about strategic planning? Who’s more likely to invent a new product or raise more successful children? The cautious person who worries and second-guesses themselves? Or the careful person who makes well thought-out decisions?

The leadership challenge of the next decade is to take fear off the table.

Next time you’re faced with a decision, instead of saying, “We need to be cautious,” tell your team or family, “I’d like us to consider this very carefully.”

Asking people to be cautious stalls decision-making. Asking them to be careful gets them more engaged.

The days of shoot ’em up cowboy leadership are over. But that doesn’t mean we have to be wimps.

Cautious leaders paralyze people. Careful leaders possess the kind of confidence that others want to follow.

McLeod & More, Inc. is an international training and consulting firm specializing in sales, leadership, and customer/employee engagement. McLeod & More President Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, columnist, keynote speaker and business consultant. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth, has been cited as the blueprint for “how smart people can get better at everything.” Visit for a short video intro. Copyright 2010 Lisa Earle McLeod. All rights reserved.