Politics. I mean the ones in the office. The ones that create eye rolls and backbiting. Not to be confused with government politics which consists of…eye rolling and backbiting. Ok, anyhow – you get the point.

The real mystery about office politics is why it happens. Why do we let ourselves belittle our colleagues? For the sake of ego, a leg up, the upper hand? Does it make us feel better to make someone else seem less so that we may seem more or really drive home a point? No, of course not! Then, why does it happen? Because our mouth starts running before our brain starts thinking.

Let’s use Washington’s Senator Maureen Walsh’s statement about nurses in hospitals – “they probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day.” Whoa. That’s a blow, Senator. And she’s paying for it – over 1,700 decks of cards delivered to her office, 35,000 calls and 10,000 emails in a week! Yikes! But the real tragedy of the whole situation is that Sen. Walsh was actually trying to make a point that supports the smaller hospitals financially, keeping them open and saving jobs. Now, I won’t get into the politics of that but what I do find interesting is how this all plays out. She intends to stand up for the greater good but in the effort makes a major communication misstep.

I’ve seen this happen in real time in business. A General Manager says, we need to cut back on breaks and what he means and thinks is, “In order to maintain profitability we have to be conscience of expenditures.” If two breaks are sufficient, then maybe we cut the third break, or maybe we don’t buy new equipment this year. When conversations like this come up at a management level the understood goal is (safety first where applicable, obviously) and then responsible fiscal decisions so that the company continues to be profitable and can support the associated workforce. However, the translation isn’t exactly that when communicating to the workforce and, as we’ve outlined above, there’s some serious heat that comes along with these communication foibles.

We don’t mean to upset the workforce apple cart as leaders and everything we do is in honor or support of the business ergo the employee but sometimes the way we communicate that gets in the way of true intention. Here are four tips for making sure you don’t stick your political foot in your mouth as a leader:

  1. Write it down. You’ve delivered a hundred messages to your employees in your career, you don’t need to write it down. Wrong. Even if it’s a few sentences or you type it in your notes on your phone. Write it down. It helps you reflect on what the words are actually saying.
  2. Say what you mean out loud – to yourself, to your management team, to your spouse. Get an outside perspective. So many times we know exactly the point we want to make but one rogue question from the audience throws us off. Be sure your message is clear so that you don’t wander down someone else’s rabbit hole.
  3. Gain insight BEFORE you address the group. You know what’s worse than dropping a message on someone with the wrong context? Using wrong context and the wrong perspective! Make sure you understand what those people are seeing before you tell them what they’re seeing. I’ve made this mistake myself and, frankly, it’s embarrassing. I few minutes in the field (office) doing some perspective research is leadership communication gold.
  4. Ask for grace. As leaders, every one of our decisions and associated messages is not always good news or pleasant. Let people know you care about them and the business, offer to answer any questions and ask for some grace as you all work through the change as a team. Appearing to be human is a great way to create buy-in.

Sen. Walsh likely isn’t a “bad” person and certainly understands the value of a nurse. Unfortunately, she will never be able to take back what she said or apologize enough to repair the damage done. Once lost, no matter the amount, trust is never the same. We must be mindful as leaders, about what comes out of our mouth. Transparency and careful planning will save the day when it comes to internal messaging!