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.  His 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?

Broadway Musicals and Al Gore

I like all kinds of live theatre, but I am particularly fond of musical theatre  – what many people call “Broadway musicals”.  I like musicals so much that I read books about them, listen to cast albums, and attend performances at all levels, including local high schools.  I follow many musical-related sites on Twitter; my favorite is @DailyShowtune.

Unfortunately, I am also hyper-critical, which sometimes makes it very difficult to enjoy watching shows.  If a musical takes place in 1958, like Bye, Bye Birdie, and the actors are wearing 1995 shoes, I go a little berserk.  Don’t even think about using a 1960’s radio as a prop in a show set in the 1940’s.  I don’t like the concept of  jukebox musicals (musicals that are written around a song catalog of one artist, like Jersey Boys) at all.  When I see these things, I see so much red that it is hard for me to concentrate on the rest of the show.

So when I am squirming in my seat, trying to ignore Emile de Becque (you know, the guys who sings Some Enchanted Evening)  wearing a Detroit Red Wings tie in a local community theatre production of South Pacific (yes, this really happened), I take a deep breath and say to myself:  What can I find to really LOVE about this show?

Inevitably, I will find something I really love – like the costumes, or a particular performance, or the sets.  Turning aside my critical feelings and finding the good stuff – it’s always there somewhere – keeps me in my seat for the whole show, even though the accepted theatre-goers response to show dislike is to get up and leave.

So what does this have to do with Al Gore? Or HR?

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) announced that Al Gore was going to be the featured speaker at their big, brassy annual convention in San Diego in June 2010.  There was an immediate amount of backlash and negative discussion prompted by his selection, including negative bloggers and a highly critical discussion on LinkedIn.  Many people said they would not go to his speech, or to the convention itself, because of his selection.

See the connection?  These people are letting this one small piece of hyper-criticism destroy their love of the whole.  And if they don’t love the whole, why do they care if Al Gore speaks or not?  I hope these people re-evaluate their positions and decide that it is not worth walking out on SHRM Annual just because they don’t like or agree with Al Gore and/or his politics.  If they LOOK FOR SOMETHING TO LOVE, even in his speech,  I bet they’ll find it.  Maybe he’ll be wearing great shoes.

Audience walks out – why do they come back?