Tell Them What They Can Do, Not What They Can’t

Right after I graduated from law school I went to work for a large, “silk-stocking” law firm, where all of the lawyers were stressed and overworked, and large corporate clients paid big bucks to keep them that way.

One lawyer I met in my early days at the firm was different from most of my colleagues. He was bright and cheerful; always ready with help and advice. It was surprising and refreshing, given that he practiced environmental law, one of those practice areas where you deal with unreasonable clients and extensive, obtuse government regulations.

So I asked him one day how he maintained his positive attitude around colleagues and clients, something others in the firm couldn’t manage. ┬áHis answer?

“I’m a can-do lawyer.”

He went on to explain that he preferred to tell his clients what they could do, and how to go about doing it, instead of telling them what they could not do. For a lawyer, that’s a pretty radical approach. But his clients loved him for it, and it clearly made him more successful.

I have been reminded of the power of this approach several times in the past month as I make the rounds of HR conferences. Some of those reminders come from speakers, and some come from smart and valuable conversations with other attendees. The message needs to be made to all HR pros, no matter the source:

  • Tell employees what they can do, not what they can’t.
  • Tell yourself what you can do, not what you can’t.
  • When someone gives you an idea, tell yourself how to make it work, instead of telling the giver why it won’t.
What’s stopping you?