My heart broke as I watched a young dad yelling at his crying two-year-old. I wanted to swoop in, rescue the kid, and teach the dad how big and scary he was. The dad was obviously frustrated beyond belief, but yelling wasn’t a great choice.
I too have felt that level of frustration, in my roles as boss, parent and teacher. But it’s important to remember how big and scary we can be—whether literally, to children, or figuratively, to employees and learners. (Although they don’t show it, even adult learners can be easily intimidated.)
As bosses, parents, mentors and teachers our words carry weight; we must constantly be aware of the power we wield. We can make a difference in someone’s sense of self, intelligence, and capability. Without knowing it, we can open a door or slam it shut. Be an encourager, not the reason someone quits.
But you don’t have to hold a title; anyone can be a leader. Being a leader means using the power of words and actions to demonstrate integrity, courage and kindness. Your words and actions may encourage or inspire another person; even small remarks can make a difference.
Be careful of your comments, even to adults. Adults carry crazy amounts of emotional baggage. Always remember you don’t know someone’s story; you don’t know what else is going on for them. In the case of adult learners or team members, you don’t know their previous experiences on teams or in learning situations.
Avoid teasing. No matter how innocuous or well-intentioned, teasing can be embarrassing or cruel. It’s somewhat passive-aggressive too; no one can object to being teased without looking like a whiner.
Avoid labels. I once watched a leader single someone out as the “only ginger in the room.” I know they were trying to be lighthearted, but it made people uncomfortable.
Avoid over-praise. This can alienate the rest of the team or embarrass the recipient. In a learning situation, students may not appreciate being seen as much smarter than their peers.
Encourage curiosity, experimentation and failure. Being a team member or student requires a willingness to fail publicly. If an answer totally misses the mark draw attention to what’s right. Say something like “I understand how you got there; your thinking makes sense. Thanks for speaking up.”
In summary, you don’t know what’s going on in peoples’ heads; keep your words positive and kind. You can show people how to speak and act with integrity, respect, courage and kindness.