This blog was originally published on December 3, 2015.

Once upon a time, I was a supervisor for a very small roofing company. One hot summer day, we had a crew working to finish a bank’s flat roof before the weather got nasty. Knowing that nothing good ever happens to a roof-less bank in a thunderstorm, my boss told me to button-up the job I was on and drive over to see how the bank crew was faring.

Upon arrival, to my horror, they were standing around yapping while the young Foreman sat on the parapet wall apparently enjoying a smoke. What would be your first reaction? Mine, too. I was hot, tired, and slightly bitter about burning a perfectly good Saturday afternoon to babysit another crew. Let’s just say I’m not proud of what came out of my mouth that day. Long story short — we closed that deck just in time. The Foreman, however, worked hard to avoid me and eventually turned in his resignation.

If you’re responsible for the performance of other people, you’re “on stage” all day, every day. Like it (or believe it) or not, your people are watching your reaction to every situation. If you think it’s appropriate, it must be appropriate. Silence, by the way, is perceived as tacit compliance. Got paranoia?

As if that weren’t enough, we humans tend to make judgements about the movie from the trailer. So, if you’re caught flat-footed in a pressure situation when you’re on your last nerve, those subordinate spectators tend to view what you think is a one-time lapse in self-control as characteristic of your leadership style. Memories… Ouch! Knowing what I know now, I would have used that bank rooftop as a training platform to help the new kid understand how a Foreman appropriately responds to a crisis.

Few rules are universal. However, there are three questions that I think would make our people’s work-world remarkably better if bosses everywhere (yes, including me) would silently answer them before engaging their mouth. Let’s call them “Rules for Talking:”

  • Is it True?
  • Is it Kind?
  • Is it Necessary?

I think we can all agree that working with truth is better. Kindness, though, frames the truth in a way that doesn’t poke the recipient in the eye. And, although uncomfortable, there are times when it’s necessary to confront someone whose behavior has become your team’s stone-in-the-shoe. On the other hand, fashion mistakes (hey, Spandex is not for everybody…) may be true and you may be able to get that point across in a kind way. But is that really necessary?

Remember that bank roof? I wasn’t wrong to take over. Had we not done something immediately, all of us would have been looking for work. I was dealing with necessary truth but neglected to pause for 15 seconds and frame my direction in a way that would have encouraged a green supervisor to get better.

If you want to be better a boss, take this ancient wisdom to heart: Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and even slower to come unglued (okay, that’s a slightly modern twist). Your people will thank you, you’ll be remarkably more productive, and YOUR boss will notice.