Pretend that you occasionally lose your temper in meetings, and my aim is to get you to change. The next time I see you lose your cool, I say one of two things:
Hey, timeout. You just did it again — you lost your temper with Mario. This is the third time I’ve seen you do this in the last two days. C’mon, this behavior HAS to stop.
Hey, can we chat for a sec? I noticed you just lost your temper with Mario. Did you notice that too? You are so good at running these meetings, I can only imagine how much more effective you’re going to be as you move past this behaviour. What can I do to help?
In the first, I’m calling you out. In the second, I’m calling you forth. The content is similar. The messaging and tone are quite different. Which do you think is more effective? For most people and circumstances, it’s the latter.
If you’re a straight-shooting type of person like me (or a lawyer, philosophy major, or debate club type), you might get a cheap thrill when calling people out. It’s feels like winning a game of Gotcha!, particularly when it’s uniquely insightful. How brilliant of me to notice that and how daring to state it! Calling out can also be an emotional release. You get to be angry and superior, justifiably.
That’s the thing with calling people out. It often, not always, comes from a place of ego or reaction. The intent, conscious or not, is to make the other person wrong. There’s also a public aspect to calling someone out, of making them lose face. The tone is adversarial. And ultimately, you’re putting the burden of change entirely on the other person (“Stop it!”).
Calling people forth, in contrast, comes from a place of service and an open heart. The intent is to call the person to higher ground. It builds on their strengths. The tone is collaborative. And ultimately, you’re sharing the burden of getting better (“How can I help?”). It feels more like coaching than scolding.
Some would say calling forth is the same as using positive instead of negative reinforcement, or the “sandwich” approach to feedback. But I think it goes deeper than messaging. Calling forth is a mindset, a way of showing up as a leader who fights for the greatness within others. It starts with intention. It’s the key difference between transformational leadership and transactional leadership.
The point isn’t to be soft or to avoid conflict, it’s to be more effective. In the short term, calling forth is more motivational. In the longer term, it’s a better way to frame the relationship.
To be sure, there are situations when a heavier hand is needed. Calling out repeated safety violations may be an effective way to signal norms to others. Calling out sexist or illegal behavior may be more appropriate than a softer touch.
But as leaders, we want to build people up, not tear them down. We want to inspire our team members to levels of effectiveness that they never imagined. According to Gallup, only 13% of employees worldwide feel engaged with their work. Imagine what a 90% engagement rate would look like in terms of productivity, satisfaction, and turnover rates. But I don’t think we’ll get there if we keep calling each other out.
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