According to Google, which gets its definitions from Oxford Languages, ‘should’ is a verb used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions. It is also used to indicate what is probable.
According to a tweet from Tricia Howard:
Couple years ago I tried to omit “should” from my vocabulary as much as possible. It is one of those unintentionally negative words that implies obligation. It helped me communicate better with myself & others.
Only drawback: now when I am told I “should” do something: 3 angry red faces.
My take is that ‘should’ is a very loaded and negative word. It implies that you are not aware of standards, rules, or practices that need to be followed, and that you need to correct your actions. It is a word that makes people very defensive. It makes people feel very small, unknowledgeable, and fearful. Oftentimes, it brings out the fight or flight instinct in people. Many reactions are not positive and do not serve to demonstrate emotional intelligence.
The workplace is known for abstracting battles and arguments using passive-aggressive negative language. This does not blunt their impact. We can, however, look at several typical reactions people have when this word is used against them by someone in a position of authority. We can then look at what is the best response, and why.
Most importantly, we need to set an example for others on how to deal with negativity with greater emotional intelligence. By going through six possible reactions, we can focus on how to better respond and set an example for others. On a personal note, I want others to learn from my experiences, so they do not have the same negative experiences that I had.
Below are some of the common reactions to hearing or seeing the word ‘should’:
- Affirmative Construction. This is when someone attempts to demonstrate that yes, an unrelated grouping of events has been centrally coordinated all along, and yes, we have always done it this way. Sadly, I’ve observed many people do this who should have known better — including senior executives. The truth is, the executives you try to fool with this are not fooled. Whether they choose to call out the person who does it is an exercise better left to the reader. However, this normally is not considered a path to further career advancement.
- Risk Transference. This happens when someone absolves themselves of accountability, claiming the issue is someone else’s responsibility. Oftentimes this involves people blaming others for not doing the work. Sometimes it comes with them throwing tantrums, claiming another area should be responsible. As with Affirmative Construction, people should know better, because executives are not fooled by this behavior. Unlike Affirmative Construction, it will more than likely lead to them getting called out and denied further advancement.
- Risk Denial. This is when the person’s stance is that the issue does not exist. Unlike with Risk Transference, they will blame others for their lack of knowledge or expertise, or use any excuse in the book — up to and including the various *isms — to deny the findings. When this happens, the executives in charge bring in others to confirm their suspicions that something is not right. The career expectancy of someone who does this can often be measured in hours, with zero chance for advancement. In extreme cases, they might face legal action.
- We will develop a plan to address this. This happens when individuals realize there may be issues and commit to developing a plan to address them. It’s a better response, although it still sounds non-committal. However, it at least acknowledge that there’s opportunity for improvement.
- We will develop a plan to address this by X date. This response time-boxes the plan development. And while it doesn’t give definite milestones, it does set some degree of expectations. However, it is still non-committal to stakeholders.
- We will work with our team, develop a plan, and address the concerns by X date, along with defined milestones with individual completion dates. This is the most correct response. It indicates there will be collaboration and consensus across the organization, with a plan that reflects direct addressing of the issues. It will be completed by a certain date, along with individual subtasks that demonstrate articulation and understanding of the work that needs to be done.
When someone uses a negative word like ‘should,’ leaders need to take several steps:
- Acknowledge that the issues at hand exist or are based on fact.
- Commit to working with others to learn more about them.
- Commit to developing a plan that demonstrates learning and understanding of using milestones.
- Do not try and solve it immediately.
- Do not try and solve it yourself.
- Do not push it off on others or blame others.
- Do not deny.
- Set concrete dates to complete the plan and actions.
Why do we need to do this?
We need to think about our actions and combat the negative effects of these words. The fight or flight reflex that often kicks in will cause many people to react irrationally. We need to work on controlling our reactions, and understand that doing so negatively will have cascading effects on our careers and lives.
We can do better. We need to be mindful of our words and the reactions that others have to them. Hopefully today we’ve learned how to respond better to one particular word.
This piece was written by Mitch Parker, CISO at Indiana University Health. To follow him on Twitter, click here.