Understanding Your Team's Language

Seven years into my marriage, my wife and I realized we were having problems forming apologies to each other. I apologized to her the way I wanted her to apologize to me… “I’m sorry. I’m going to take XYZ steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

But she wanted something different. She wanted me to own it, by recognizing the hurt I caused her. Until we read The Five Languages of Apology, we didn’t know we were apologizing to each other in what basically, foreign languages.

It was important for us and our marriage, to learn each other’s language – and I’ve learned that it’s important in my work-life, too.

Typically when you interact with people, it’s wise to follow the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you wish done unto you.”

I’ve memorized it. I’ve had my kids memorize it. But in a work setting, the wisdom of the Golden Rule doesn’t hold up that well in all circumstances. It’s not always wise to manage others the same way you would want to be managed.

Often while at work, we encourage, correct, and lead in ways we wish to receive those same things. But each employee has different needs. The “Golden Rule breaking” idea comes from the book First, Break All the Rules. Authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman explain this idea and call it “managing by exception.”

Managing by exception is hard work. It takes study and a lot of relational intelligence (read past post on emotional and relational intelligence). Our church uses a personality and spiritual gifts assessment called PLACE to help better understand people’s personalities and give their supervisors tips how to lead them. Because this idea is so important, I also personally use StrengthsFinder, Stand Out and The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace to better understand how people I work directly with like to receive communication, correction, and appreciation.

If it seems overwhelming to learn the “languages” of those who work directly with you, start small:

  • Ask them their favorite way to learn.
  • Ask if they prefer to talk things through in person or through email.
  • Ask if they like public recognition or something less “public.”
  • Determine if they like to make decisions alone or collaboratively.

As a leader, we have to communicate effectively to those we supervise. Effective communication will sound different to each person. When you can, contextualize to the individual.

Practical takeaway: at times, you’ll need to break the Golden Rule.

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