I live in one of the “luxury” apartment buildings in Manhattan. And for 95 percent of the people who live in this building, they get to enjoy the full luxury experience. For me, however, it’s different.
I live on the side of the building that touches a major retailer’s loading dock and storage facility. Each day and night I’m accosted by noises that transfer, making it sound like pallets are being dragged and dropped literally above my head. The physics of sound transfer are astonishing. This happens all hours of the day and night, making a full night’s rest a wishful thought.
For months I put in complaints, made suggestions for change, offered potential remedies -- all falling on deaf ears. After realizing that the building management had no capacity to implement change, I went directly to the property manager. I wrote to him, offering multiple solutions.
After not receiving a response for eight business days, I re-sent a message asking him for the courtesy of a response.
His first line: “Hi Jill–a rent reduction is not possible.”
That combination of words is not readily in my vocabulary.
The grammatically-literal me wanted to write back, “I urge you to consult a dictionary for the meaning of the word ‘possible.’” Or, “What you mean to say is that it is possible, but that you’re not willing to consider it.” But I held my tongue (or fingers in this case).
Telling someone that something is “not possible” is a dangerous action. If you do this to your employees, you might as well toss money in the trash.
Unfortunately, managers and leaders do it all too often.
When you tell someone that something is “not possible” you typically get one of two reactions:
- The person will be determined to prove you wrong.
- The person’s spirit will be broken.
Either way the reaction is polarizing, pitting a leader against employees. It becomes me versus you or us versus them. Neither is productive.
If a person sees “not possible” as a challenge and becomes obsessed with proving the statement wrong, you get an employee who is unilaterally focused on a task that you’ve already deemed non-essential. This takes productivity away from other tasks and can also upset the collaborative balance of workplace teams. You also run the risk of the employee looking for a new job—at a place where something IS possible and where management better encourages and supports innovation.
When you use “not possible” you also erode employee morale. In this scenario you get an employee who feels under-valued, under-appreciated, or, worse, under-utilized. By saying something is “not possible” you’re telling someone that his or her thoughts aren’t worth merit, that innovation isn’t encouraged, and that he or she shouldn’t bring new ideas to the table. This produces an environment of rigidity and imbalance.
When people feel undue stress in the workplace, they actively seek to restore equity. This can manifest through a decrease in productivity, increased workplace gossip, exit planning, a breakdown in team dynamics, and many other negative impacts on the bottom line.
So what happens when the words “not possible” slip out? Are you immediately doomed?
No. Not if you add one simple word.
If you’re going to use the words “not possible” or if you catch them slipping out, here is a simple fix.
Add “unless…” to your sentence.
“It’s not possible unless you/I/we can find a way to [reduce the budget by X amount].”
“This just isn’t possible unless you/I/we can [create an additional revenue stream to fund the research].”
This simple addition allows for the employee to envision a cause-and-effect relationship between his/her idea and the larger vision of a business. By doing so, it also challenges the employee to be creative about a way to reduce the budget, create an additional revenue stream, or whatever needs to be done to make an idea possible. Many new ideas can float to the surface from this simple addition. This also allows for an if/then thought process, allowing a free-flow of ideas to come to the surface and enabling your employees to be an active part of a solution.
People support what they help create. Employees who feel invested in their teams and companies are more productive contributors to the organization’s vision. Managers who support co-creation provide employees with a path to exercise innovation and creativity in the face of restraints and challenges.
Don’t use limiting language and be an innovation killer. Instead, let your employees help you rethink what IS possible.
(Author Note: For those curious on where my apartment story went, I responded, inviting him, or whoever makes the decisions on what is “possible”, to stay in my unit (or the vacant-because-of-the-noise unit next to me). Two weeks later I was released, penalty-free, from my lease and I now live in a lovely, quiet apartment.)