Want to know what your coworkers and colleagues would really like to tell you, but don’t have the nerve? Of course not. Yet it’s good for all of us to know what’s going on in the minds of those around us, if only so we can have some witty responses handy. That’s why I’ve decided to reveal the five most important things top-level leaders, bosses, managers, and administrators should know, but probably don’t, because those working with them don't have the nerve to say such things aloud.

I've asked everybody I know, from the new kid in the office to the most senior administrative assistant, and am using versions of their most printable responses: 

  1. Like you, we’re only human. We can’t do 2,973 things at the same time. If you tell us that we have to gather data, prepare a PowerPoint presentation, deal with a special needs client, work with a sub-committee for the implantation of novelty shrubbery and recruit parents for a trip to the local prison on career day, we won’t be able to do all of those things in one morning. Just because you couldn’t sleep one night  and made a list at two a.m. which includes every idea that floated snowflake-like on to the flat, burning landscape of your brain  does not mean we have to do it.  
  2. We know when you’re nervous, unprepared, or in a grim mood. We understand that you are only human, too. But we also know that you’ve achieved your leadership position because you’ve exhibited talent, creativity, sound judgment and a level of professionalism that has put you ahead of us. And even if you make us all sit in a circle, hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” we still know that you’re ahead of us. Part of the responsibility of your position is not letting the personal life bleed through into your professional life the way gaudy, old wallpaper might bleed through new, cheap paint. If you’ve just had a fight with your mate or a rough morning with your own children, you’re not allowed to come in and be mean to everybody. No one should do this, of course, but everybody’s looking to you because you’re in the spotlight. Making your personal moods obvious is like wearing red underwear under white pants. And under a spotlight, that shows. And it isn’t pretty.
  3. Give us authentic praise and genuine criticism. Please don’t be cute, patronizing, overly maternal, or condescendingly avuncular. If we did a great job, don’t give us a gold star or a stuffed toy. Send us an email, write us a letter or call us into your office to acknowledge our success and let us know that you admire our achievement. If we have failed in some way, give us the courtesy of being straightforward. Explain in detail what we need to do to improve or correct our pattern of behavior. Criticize us without condemning us. And please, please don’t send us notes with little frown-y faces on them. We hate that.
  4. Don’t whine when you’re busy. Nobody feels sorry for you. That’s the price of power. Even when you feel as if you have any, everybody else remembers that you do.
  5. Cultivate your sense of humor. We know you have it; it’s one of the things we like best about you. On one of those days when you are nervous, unprepared or in a grim mood, try to figure out how to make light of it, not to diminish your own emotions, but literally to lighten them and to help enlighten us. Humor is one of the very few ways you can help bring the community of people you work with together. It’s even better than cake, and when done right, there’s very little clean up involved. Not all humor needs to be self deprecating, either, because undermining your own sense of authority too often will make us feel like you’re setting a trap, and that we’ll get in to trouble if we agree with too much alacrity. If you say, “Boy, I’m such a klutz,” and we all yell back, “You certainly are!” it might not be a fabulous moment for everyone. Of course, if done right, and in the right spirit, it could be. Laughing together is as close as people can get without giving each other a hug. Humor is allowed. It’s sort of like, tickle-down emotional economics. Everybody feels better when it works.

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