Growing up in a small, religious community, I did my fair share of Bible study. One or two verses stuck with me over the years.
James 3:5, for example. The subject is the human tongue, paltry in size yet able to cause enormous trouble with a few ill-chosen words:
“Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!”
The language has aged, but the message is still relevant today. Words matter. Especially for those in positions of leadership.
CEOs carry a loaded gun daily.
But let’s modernize the metaphor a bit. When considering my relationship and responsibility to my employees vis-a-vis what comes out of my yap, my preferred image is a loaded gun.
It’s brutal, but perfect. It reminds me that my obligation to watch what I say is deadly serious.
If I can’t be the responsible guardian of a gun, I shouldn’t own one. If I don’t take seriously my power to harm those under me, I shouldn’t lead.
Here are three broad effects your words can inadvertently have on an employee:
1. How they feel about themselves.
Offices can be raucous places with lots of big personalities. In that environment, it’s natural for good-natured teasing to occur as a form of bonding or letting off steam.
No one should cross the line into cruelty, of course, but a leader has to do more than avoid being an outright jerk.
Even casual remarks can have significant consequences. A friend, for example, once shared a story about a former employer observing that he had a habit of walking on his toes.
This guy had no way of knowing it was something my friend was sensitive about. Worse, he made the comment in front of a bunch of his coworkers.
If the remark had been made by one of the latter, my friend could have shrugged it off. The fact that it was his boss — the person who signed his paychecks, and to whom the rest of the company looked for guidance — caused it to stick with him for a long time.
The point is to be careful. Don’t say stuff like, “Hey, we have so much work to do, let’s up our game,” unless you have a specific reason.
You’re just shooting your gun pointlessly otherwise, and distracting hardworking people from their jobs.
2. How they feel about the company.
Let’s say that Jack has just been promoted to an executive position. He’s standing at a water cooler with a couple of engineers.
He goes off on a rant: “Do you realize that we still haven’t nailed our premium product? I’m super unhappy with the metrics and I’m starting to feel a little nervous about our prospects.”
Even though Jack is just stating an opinion, the fact that he’s speaking from a position of authority might freak out his listeners and cause them unnecessary worry.
He has insider knowledge, making it more likely that his observations will be taken as gospel.
3. How they feel about other leaders.
It’s important that your employees have as much faith in their managers and team leaders as they do in you. It’d be a shame to hurt those relationships with a stray bullet.
Let’s say that Jill is an influential team leader with whom you enjoy an unusually close camaraderie. Jill is a fan of video games. You don’t care for them much yourself, and occasionally rib her about it.
Jill ribs you in return about your fanatical bird-watching. So far, so good.
Now imagine that a new employee is getting instruction from her one Monday morning, and you toss out some quip about her wasting her whole weekend fighting zombies.
Even if the new employee laughs along with Jill, you’ve done potential damage. Not only have you undermined Jill’s authority, you’ve given a new hire the impression that mocking people over innocent recreational pursuits is fair game.
When it’s safe to “shoot.”
This isn’t to say that a serious promotion means you should pull back and stop communicating, or that a leader is above water cooler conversation.
It simply means that words that were once safe, might not be so safe anymore. It means that you have to work harder to be disciplined.
Your interest in people should remain the same, and you should keep being fun and personable — you just need to be sensitive at all times about that weapon in your mouth.
As for the question of when it’s OK to use it: When it’s unambiguously for the good of an employee or a team or the company as a whole.
Let’s say that an employee, in spite of repeated warnings, keeps acting self-destructively. Or that your design team is falling apart because of gossip. It may be time to fire a warning shot into the air.
Use your best judgment to decide whether you’re hurting or helping. You’re an executive for a reason. Otherwise, leave the safety on.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.