The One Unwritten Rule You Must NEVER Forget

Over the past several weeks, we've been talking about the unwritten rules of business. The rule I want to talk about today is one of the simplest, yet one of the most underestimated. And the consequences of breaking this one are long-lasting.

What is it? Always take the high road when you talk about others, no matter how tempted you might be to do otherwise. It doesn’t matter if others around you aren’t taking the high road or if you can play off your comments as a joke. Anything but taking the high road can put your credibility and your leadership brand at risk.


The Temptation to Talk About Others

I know it’s not always easy, given the types of situations you might find yourself in:

  • You're in a group setting. The conversation turns to a difficult person on another team whom you work closely with. You've had some tough challenges with that person, and you sense this group would be sympathetic if you decided to vent about your experiences.

  • One of your direct reports has some quirky habits that everyone is aware of. One of her direct reports tells you about her latest odd behavior. You think of a very funny, disparaging joke that you could tell at her expense.

  • Your boss just hit you with some unexpected, harshly delivered criticism. When one of your peers drops by your office, you really want to shut the door and unload — just as your peer did last week.

In each one of these scenarios, pause for just a few seconds to think about the short- and long-term impact of your actions. As a leader, I urge you to simply hold back from making negative comments about anyone you work with at any time, regardless of the level of the person you are talking about or the level of the person you are talking to. Just take the high road. You don’t know if, when or how your words will get shared.

Your Negativity Reflects on YOU

When you speak negatively about someone, even if what you’re saying is true, you may experience several consequences. First, your unkind words may get back to that person and affect your working relationship with them and possibly the entire team’s dynamics. Second, instead of thinking less of the person you are criticizing, your audience might actually think less of you:

  • "If you’re saying this about John, what are you saying about me behind my back?"

  • "If this is how you talk about people you work with, why would I want to work with you?"

  • "Stop complaining and just fix the problem. You’re supposed to be a leader."

The higher up you are in the organization, the more weight your words carry. Ultimately, your behavior may erode the trust that you’ve worked so hard to build. No matter how good it feels in the moment to vent or joke about a colleague, is it worth the potential long-term damage to your reputation? Negative comments can have a long shelf life.

Better Ways to Deal With Frustration

So what can you do instead if you’ve hit the wall and need to vent?

It's OK to vent — just avoid it at work. Confide in trusted friends or family outside the office. Or simply get your negative thoughts out of your head and onto a piece of paper. Write them down uncensored. After you've had a chance to blow off some steam, identify what's really bothering you. By getting to the heart of the issue, you can start focusing on how to solve it.

You will realize that you have several options to improve the situation. It's easy to put off having a difficult or uncomfortable conversation, but doing so is much more constructive than gossiping or throwing someone under the bus. For more advice on giving feedback, see my articles "How to Give Constructive Feedback to Your Boss" and "How to Help a Problem Employee Get on Track."

More Unwritten Rules

If you'd like to read more on the unwritten rules of work, check out the past articles in this series:

If you have questions about other unwritten rules at work, please don't hesitate to drop me a note. I may answer your question in an upcoming blog article.