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As the older sibling in my family, I often acted out, which was just my way of getting attention from my parents. More often than not, my parents would simply scold me and tell me, “You should be setting a good example for your brother.”

Over time, this phrase constantly popped up. Most of the time, it came through well meaning advice. Friends would say things to me like, “You should have called him to tell him you like him!” or “You should have worn the blue dress.” This sounded nothing like the ‘you should have’ I had heard from my parents. But it came from the same place.

The next time I heard the phrase was during my first job after college. My manager with an accusatory tone would often tell me, “You should have done it this way!”, implying that somehow I was at fault for an incident that occurred.

Recently, as a side job, I’ve started to work a part time job that as a glorified babysitter. My employer is a woman with a fifteen-year-old son who has ADHD. She works full time running her own company and doesn’t arrive home till late at night. She needed a person to let the dog out into the backyard, feed the dog and cats, be there to make sure her son comes home from school and make him dinner. Over the years, she had employed several agency workers but none of them had worked out. She was greatly relieved when I was introduced to her and I made it clear I was genuinely interested. Now, the truth is, I’ve never had children, but I felt these seemed to be straightforward responsibilities that I could handle with ease.

Within the first four weeks, I encountered that familiar phrase yet again. One day, the son failed to call me and tell me that he was going to be home late after school. His mother happened to call an hour after he was supposed to have been home. When I told her that her son wasn’t home yet, she said, with that familiar accusatory tone, “You should have called me sooner when he wasn’t home at 6 p.m., after all that is common sense.” I heard the anxiety in her voice, which was understandable, but I also heard that tone, the one that said that I was somehow at fault.  

“You should have”…. these fault-finding often words inflict feelings of blame, anger and finger-pointing. Now, admittedly hearing her say this to me produced a small giggle on my part, as it took me back to my first manager who scolded me so often. I’m not a mother nor am I a professional babysitter, but I a 60-year-old adult woman, with enough credentials to have some common sense and experience. Up until this point, I hadn’t given her any cause for critique or lack of trust. Besides, her son was old enough not to be in any danger. I just chalked it up her micro-managing style.

‘You should have’ is a demanding phrase that implies a lack of trust. Using the phrase creates condemnation for something that has already been done and cannot be changed. There’s no way to go back and fix it. If the person then offers advice for the future, it can lead to something productive. Otherwise, it doesn’t do anyone any good. While in this particular instance, the mother might not have intended to entirely blame me, that’s how what it came out as.

Consider a phenomenon called the ‘Illusion of Truth Effect’. Essentially, it proves that any statement we read, see, or speak about regularly is seen as more valid than one that we’re exposed to only occasionally. Amazingly, it makes no difference whether the information is true or false. The only factor that matters is how often we’re exposed to phrases like, ‘you should have’. Reading about the phrase, it’s clear how your internal dialogue can be shaped to create a false self-image of incompetence after hearing this phrase over and over again. Thankfully my self-confidence is intact and I knew better than to subscribe to any guilt. But it got me thinking about my first manager all over again.

 As a manager, the one surefire way to offend an employee or upset a colleague is to suggest that they are guilty of something. A key responsibility for you, as a manager, is to give out advice for improving. However, a vital part of this is choosing your words wisely, because the words you say carry a lot of importance. After all, to this day, I remember those words even after forty years.

Another responsibility as a leader is to motivate your employees, not erode their self-confidence – something that many employers forget. When an employee makes a mistake, instead of blaming them, try taking a collaborative approach instead. Using phrases like, “Please help me understand why you did this” or “I understand that you may not have known, let’s resolve this together”.  Instead of making someone feel guilty or shameful, take a more productive non-judgmental approach.” Say, “In the future, I recommend this….”. Let your employee know that they are valued, they have a choice, and that this experience should become a lesson for making better choices in the future.

You should definitely be mindful of your word choices.

I invite you to share your experiences or thoughts, or comments. You can email or call me for more information on soft skills/interpersonal skills workshops that can transform employees.