What People Really Think When the Boss Starts Talking

When the leader speaks, what is the team thinking?

Think about your own mental talk track, what are you thinking about when someone of importance is speaking?

When the boss stands in front of the team to lay out strategy or report results, the listeners process the information on two levels.

First, what is the boss saying?

Second, what does it really mean? Or more specifically, what does it mean for me?

When someone is in power, whether it’s the CEO or the shift supervisor in a restaurant, employees make it their business to figure out the boss.

I work with a lot of CEOs, and they’re often surprised at how their people perceive them. Every word the boss says has elevated meaning simply because they’re the boss. If the boss is quiet, people will read into that. If the boss is chatty, or happy, or grumpy, or you fill in the blank, people will make assumptions about that. Employees can attribute strategic intent to even the most innocuous comments.

For example, I’ve seen a CEO make an offhand remark about a Power Point or report.  Within a week, one small comment becomes a corporate edict. The entire organization is running in circles making changes trying to please the boss and half the time the boss doesn’t even know she or he was perceived as requesting a change.

One of my favorite leaders, former Popeye’s CEO Cheryl Bachelder, one of the most successful CEOs in recent industry history, says, “The people know your motives, whether you know them or not.” During her tenure as Popeye’s CEO Bachelder made a point to be transparent with her team. She recognized what many leaders don’t: If you don’t tell your team what your motives are, they’re going to start guessing.

One of the challenges CEOs face, particularly CEOs of publicly held firms, is they have to be so careful in their language they often lose their authenticity.

Part our work is to help leaders emotionally engage with their teams. Sometimes it’s as simple as providing the leader with a forum to be their true self. During a recent project, I interviewed the CEO of the organization for a “fireside” chat during a company town hall. Instead of talking about the numbers or the plan, we took a different route. We did it more Oprah style.  I asked him why he got into the business, what were his biggest career stumbles, and why did he care about the business? He didn’t have to worry about hitting the next point, or making sure he covered a specific subject, that was my job. So the CEO relaxed, and his true self emerged.

It was transformational.

You could see the employees lean in, and connect with their boss on a whole new level. When he talked about his early career and why he cared about their company, he connected with his team in a deeper more authentic way than he had in the past.

When the team understands the boss’s motivation, and who he or she really is, they no longer have to guess what things mean. They know. When the leader speaks, they don’t need a second mental track to process the boss’s intent, they already understand it.

If you’re the boss, people want to know who you are, why you’re there, and what you really want. Make it easy on everyone, just tell them.