Amelia Bedelia and Managerial Power

13 May

Just to clarify,  I am not breaking my rule about sensationalistic blog post titles, there’s a good connection here.

In a communications class for managers I facilitated yesterday we had a great discussion about how your communication changes when you go from being an individual contributor to becoming a manager. Whether you like it or not your communication is more authoritative when your a manager.

Case in point:

As Bill returned to his office, he overheard Judy, the accounting department assistant, comment to a supplier on the telephone.

“Yes Mr. Goodwin,” Judy said, “Lucy will definitely call you early next week.  I know how important that financial report is to you.”

“What’s going on?” interrupted Bill.  “Where is Lucy?  I gave her last Monday off, not the entire week!”

“That’s strange,” replied Judy.  “Lucy told me you gave her the week off.  And because of your suggestion, she was going to Jamaica with her boyfriend.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Bill, annoyed.  “Last week she asked for Monday off.  I felt she had taken enough vacation time in the last few months and sarcastically told her ‘Why not take the entire week off and go to Jamaica with your boyfriend.’”

“Well, Bill, I guess she took your advice literally and did just that,” said Judy, laughing.

When you are a manager, your direct reports and others take what you say much more literally. As we were discussing this yesterday the Amelia Bedelia books by Peggy Parish came to mind. (Peggy died in 1988, but my kids still love her books today. I actually just ordered a bunch after my 7 year old read the original book and loved it). If you remember the character, Amelia Bedelia takes instructions literally, extremely literally. Dress the chicken, draw the drapes, steal home etc. My kids get a crack out of seeing how Amelia will misinterpret all of the instructions and come up with her own interpretation.

This is ok in a kids book, not at work. Managers need to recognize that what they say now carries weight and is taken literally. If you make a flippant, sarcastic comment like “forget about it” the odds are now greater that it will actually be forgotten. You can’t expect to then follow up the next week and say “what are we doing about ABC?”

As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility”.


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