When Managers Say the Right Things

Choosing the right thing to say isn’t that difficult, when it flows from the right intent. And what great results we can achieve!

When managers say the right things in a workplace, release happens — self-imposed floodgates open wide in the people who surround those managers, and their greatest possibility comes out to play. Work of different stripe, pattern, color and intensity happens, because now, people feel it can. They feel their work is wholly welcomed. Their work. People can add a personal signature to what they do — they can weave in their Ho‘ohana, and go for ‘Imi ola. They can experiment, take creative liberty, stretch, dabble and explore — these are all the good things which happen when “Nalu it” is part of the work culture.

“Nalu it” surges ahead. It jumps from meaning “go with the flow” to becoming, “go for it!”
“Nalu it” was important: It relaxes people, and gets them to drop their guard a bit more so they can go with the flow to start with. But so much more is usually possible, and when their managers say the right things in encouragement and support, people can really “go” in a big way.

Canoe Surfing at KÅ«ki‘o PointReference points: If you’re just joining us, learn about “Nalu it” here. The Hawaiian values which guide us are listed and defined for you on the right sidebar of the blog.
Besides being a pretty cool metaphor, the Language of Intention and water flow imagery of “nalu it” (to go with the flow) helps us see the work we do, and the momentum we achieve with that work, through the lens of natural physics. The strength and perpetual power of wave action is pretty obvious, yet consider this: People are a force of nature too!

Nalu from what’s expected, to what’s possible

People know they are in a workplace to work. What managers must often do for them however, is strip away anything that holds them back. What makes a difference in a workplace culture, and in the quality of what that workplace produces or delivers, is the freedom of self expression that defines that work and channels its best energies, as opposed to the structural impositions of job description and process expectations — yes, you read that correctly: Job descriptions and and process expectations are structural impositions which function very much like shackles do, keeping more liberating work in check. The best work happens without them.

Just ask your customers, and listen closely. They’ll tell you that they don’t really want your staff to follow your rules per se, they want them to own the work (‘service’ or a ‘great product’ to a customer) with a personal touch, and with that owner’s intensity that conveys “this work is part of me, it’s important to me that it’s good, and I’m so happy I can share it with you as my customer and guest.” When your staff has “owner’s intensity” they never say, “let me get my manager” because they don’t need to; they make stuff happen (they Ho‘o), and customers thrill to their sense of urgency. Customers admire what they perceive as initiative and passion, skillful ability and uncompromising competence.

As a manager, you want your customer and guest to see those things in your people, and experience them in the service they receive. All of it is a reflection of you and what you do — what you support and enable — as a great manager.

So what are those ‘right things’ that all managers can be saying?

The different phrases are abundant, and you can make them personal, saying them in your own words, but they will all be rooted in two kinds of intention: Giving permission and sharing appreciation (the value of Mahalo).

Sharing appreciation has to do with that excellent and timeless supervisory advice: Catch people doing something right. Great managers aren’t cagey or subtle about it either: They speak up (saying the right thing, at precisely the right time) to let people know they’ve caught them, for the glorious affirmation of the aha! moment which just happened, and so they have a chance to say thank you in a genuinely sincere way. In a workplace, the best “thank you” of all is said when a manager catches their people wallowing in their strengths and talents; they’ve lost all sense of time, and their work is truly in flow. Because of the investments already done in basic competency and in value alignment, people are confident, and their work seems to sing. Managers are able to say, “thank you for doing what you do, and for doing it so well” because KÅ«lia i ka nu‘u — the value of excellence has been in play.

Before we get to that sweet spot however, the right things said by a manager will largely be about giving permission, in whatever the form and frequency that permission is needed.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.” The people who say it (and usually quite proudly) are those who hate being held back in any red tape or within the more plodding, cautious work of others. They want to go for it; they’re the “nalu it” surfers and waterwomen who paddle out where there aren’t any lifeguard towers. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission” sounds cocky and arrogant, but often it’s simply confident. They feel their odds are more in favor of success than failure — odds are that asking forgiveness isn’t going to happen, so why waste time on the permission? Just get it done, and prove the point. Everything will be fine — how bad could it be?

“The cool thing about reckless abandon is that there is always time to be sensible later.”
~ Seth Godin in Insubordinate

Again, more confidence than arrogance is in play here, for they also have a much bigger viewpoint of what success is: They’re quite sure there will be a discovery of some kind that isn’t necessarily a bona fide accomplishment yet. Heck, that discovery might even be a brand new mistake they never made before, because it’s the first time they were able to paddle out that far. That’s a good thing! Mistakes are cool. Whoever would expect they need to be forgiven for that?

The very best workplace wave people can ride? When they get permission as a gift without having to ask for it first. They get, “Nalu it!”

Let’s get back to those “right things” that a manager will say. I’m a fan of the “Nalu it” Language of Intention because it’s such a good reminder of these statements as a “give good permission” intention category. Examples are;

“Just go for it — you know what to do, and you’re the best at it.”
“Sounds to me like you have a handle on this, so just call if you feel you need something; I’ll be happy to help.”
“I’m sensing you have another idea about this; tell me about it.”
“The energy you’ve been devoting to this is fantastic; thanks so much.”
“We’ll have the luxury of more time with this project; would you like to try a different approach?”

Or simply, “What say we try something new, you game?”
And as often as possible, “What do you think?”

To be an Alaka‘i Manager, work on this deliberately: Speak with those two critical intentions of giving permission and sharing your appreciation. Add it to your list of dailies, with The Daily 5 Minutes and as a Best Communicator. The magnificent day will come, when one of your people looks at you and says, “I feel strong when I talk to you.”

A suggestion for Managing with Aloha readers: Review Chapter 4 on Ho‘omau, the value of perseverance and persistence. The connections to this discussion abound, and those Ho‘omau connections are often why we managers want to release others within their good work in the first place; they’ll have several “Nalu it” waves to ride over time.


  1. Rosa Say says

    Somewhat related to this, and added to my Tumblr just now:
    Why? by Michael Lopp aka @rands:

    The reason I continue to choose this charity [focused on promoting children’s literacy] is simple: I think the more people take the time to read increases the likelihood that they can build a defensible opinion.

    Having a defensible opinion takes work. There is infinite information out there and that means you need to pick and choose the topics where you want to stop and ask, “Wait” why?” I’ll explain via a creepy story.

    Back before there was a publicly available Internet, a doctor told my mother that smoking would keep the baby’s birth weight down. Funny thing is, it’s true. The unfunny thing is that low birth weight babies are at an increased risk for serious health problems and lasting disabilities. The decidedly unfunny thing remains — it was her doctor who told my mother this “good news”.

    History is full of lies and ignorance propagated by people who’ve put their trust in the ideals of allegedly qualified others. Now, as we live in a world divided by opinions acquired via Twitter, it’s never been easier grab onto a clever 140-character quip and assume it’s the truth. The fires of ignorance burn wildly on these acts of intellectual laziness.

    Having an opinion takes work. It means stopping in your tracks and staring conventional wisdom in the face and asking it to explain itself. It means drilling deeper than the conventionally polarizing opinions that a topic is simply awesome, it totally sucks, or it’s completely irrelevant to you. Chances are, it’s a little bit of all three, but that type of ambiguity is mentally exhausting, right? Can’t we just love or hate? It’s so much easier to yell when it’s right versus wrong or us versus them.

    Having an opinion means starting to explore in Wikipedia as a means of defining and refining your curiosity, but not trusting that it’s true. It means researching and building an intellectual map around a question. It means having the confidence and the courage to open a book, find the facts, and working to build a complex and defensible opinion so you can personally answer the question: “Why?”

    And I think it’s a habit we want to encourage as early as possible.

    As my parents would constantly say to me and my siblings, “think before you speak.”

  2. says

    Great post. Too many managers don’t realise the limitations they’re putting on their staff, even in lines of work where creativity is not just welcomed, but is a necessity. Of course, some form of structure is needed (giving the staff 100% control could be just as counter-productive, or worse), but I’d argue that the best thing a manager can do is to create a structure that allows creativity. Such an approach allows them to be creativity without limitations, but also gears it towards the managers’ vision.

  3. Rosa Say says

    Well said Steve, I quite agree, and the best kind of structure? A workplace culture aligned with the values which make its chosen work most meaningful and worthwhile.


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