Dear Dr. Graham:

I was recently promoted to vice president of my company, and now I feel like I’m losing the ability to have a normal conversation with people. Last week an employee approached me in the hall, and we had what I thought was a casual chat. I remember saying, “Did you hear that XYZ Company (our competition) purchased that software we decided not to purchase? It sure would be interesting to know how they’re using it.” Then each of us went back to work, and I didn’t think anything else about it.

Two days later a very detailed written report (including an extensive review of available software packages and notes speculating on how our competition is using its new software) appeared on my desk. It’s clear this employee spent a ton of time researching the answer to my question – which wasn’t a good use of her time at all! I didn’t mean for her to do anything about it. I was just making conversation with someone I’ve known for years.

What’s going on? How do I keep this from happening again?

Very Perplexed VP

Dear Perplexed,

Remember what it was like when you paid attention to everything your Vice President was saying and doing? Or perhaps you remember the anxiety you felt when your boss asked you to stop by her office but didn’t tell you why? (If you’re like most employees, you immediately began to worry that you had done or said something wrong when she just wanted to ask a simple question.) Well, now you are the Vice President, and the tables are turned.

You say you are losing the ability to have normal conversations, and you’re right.  What’s going on is that you are now in a position where people hang on every word you utter. Going forward, if you want to have a casual exchange with an employee, you’ll need to be explicit about your expectations: “This is just brainstorming, but . . .” OR, “I don’t want you to do anything about this, but it would be interesting to know . . .” (Or else you’ll end up with more unnecessary reports on your desk!)

In your new role you can no longer speak without thinking. Even when you’re not trying to send a secret message, employees will try to read between the lines to divine your intent or some future plan. While this hyper-attention is more intense at the senior level, it happens to some extent for every manager. It also applies to every leader’s actions. If a front-line supervisor leaves early every Friday, those he supervises think it must be okay for them to regularly slip out early, too. If a manager wears flip flops to the office, her employees are more likely to disregard dress codes.

And while you’re thinking through the impact of your words and actions, I suggest you also remember that people are always watching to see if their leaders really mean what they say. If you state, “Our people are our first priority,” but later make a decision that prioritizes profits over people, your employees will note that your words don’t match your actions.

Congratulations on your promotion. It sounds to me like your people are eager to follow your lead. The fact that you’ve posed this question also indicates that you are willing to identify and learn from your mistakes; that’s a great attribute for senior leaders, and one that will go a long way toward building excellent rapport within your team.