Talking Down to Employees and Others

“People who look down on other people don’t end up being looked up to.” – Robert Half

For any business or even individual to be successful and be known and liked, it is important to get along with others and promote goodwill for the business and oneself. A disdainful and contemptuous attitude is not tough to recognize and is instantly disliked. A person / company with such an approach will not have any qualms about talking down to employees and others. Such behaviour gives rise to distrust and can be extremely damaging for the reputation of a company or the persons engaging in it. Yet some companies and people refuse to recognize or accept that they are talking down to employees and in the bargain making this vital set of people feel belittled, angry and even cause them to leave.

The most astounding fact is that for a major part of the time companies do not even realize that they are behaving so and hence do not realize it till either someone tells them or their customers and employees begin to leave. Talking down to employees (the same applies to one’s personal life too) makes a company highly unlikeable and both customers and employees will take extra care to avoid being associated with such a company, further damaging the reputation. When companies have this condescending approach, it reflects on the leadership of the particular company.

Why do people engage in talking down employees and others, especially when it is an unconscious action? They are either a lousy communicator and or are always in a ‘rush’ and completely ignore the concept of being courteous or well-mannered. Talking down to employees translates to being completely ignorant and unmindful of the effect such behaviour has. Such people believe that they are subject matter experts on every subject there is and could resort to such behaviour because they feel threatened by someone else’ intelligence and hence try to put them down.

We have discussed in length, that employees are your most valuable assets and when treated well have the potential to be the most effective brand ambassadors. Being treated well is a combination of many different aspects and starts with receiving an informative and explanatory on-boarding. However, talking down to employees often means that the company assumes that employees should and do know everything that is being talked about and diverge from teaching and coaching to preaching. At first the employees may not react, especially when they are new, but constant talking down / preaching eventually makes them feel like the company views them as idiots or robots who must simply follow instructions without applying their skills and knowledge or face consequences. Who would like to work with such a company? The usual outcome is either that employees leave or they stop applying themselves and wait for every minute instruction, leading to delays in work and a drop in customer service. Talking down to employees means that you assume they know what you do and not being able to deliver just means that they are dumb and hence need the ‘finger wag’.

There is no particular kind of company or industry, but any company that believes they have achieved milestones and successes purely on their own merit, are the ones talking down to employees and others. They credit everything to their hard-work and persistence and refuse to share this credit with others. They expect everyone to acknowledge their achievements but do not attribute their success to the help and efforts of others. This myopic view results in talking down to employees and others about the merits of achieving great things through hard-work with themselves as the ‘glorified’ examples. Anyone with high self-confidence and humility will know that nothing is achieved in this world in isolation and the business world thrives on cooperation and inter-dependence and will be more amenable to sharing credit and won’t engage in talking down.

What can be done to correct this behaviour of talking down to employees and others? There are a number of instances where these others are customers, who will not react mildly to being talked down. Ensure that when your customers are talking, your company is doing the listening without interrupting. Listen completely and actively before believing that you already know what they are going to say and that you would have the solution. Such an ‘I know’ attitude is easily perceptible and customers will punish you for it, in more ways than one. The truth is that this applies to your employees too. Even if you don’t listen, employees come from different backgrounds carrying with them rich experience and listening to them can help your company move forward. It is crucial for a company to listen to their internal customers showing respect for their knowledge and skills and avoid talking down to employees and insulting their intelligence. When you listen – you set your company up for success by improving your understanding of the market, customers and other details that you would otherwise miss out on.

Talking down to employees is also in the form of speaking to them in a negative tone rather than an encouraging and positive one. There were two managers in the same department of a highly renowned chain of retail stores. One of them was polite and would treat his team with respect. The other a ‘victim’ of talking down! If someone from his team was on leave, he would say the next day “the reason you gave for taking leave, I know was false.” This became highly annoying and lowered the morale of the team, which then began taking leave for false reasons. As a result, the team weakened and could never perform to their optimum. When the reasons were analysed, this talking down emerged as the main source of pain and the manager was coached and trained for positive reinforcement. He ultimately left on his own since he had already lost the respect of his team and others.

Great – so you are highly skilled and have in-depth technical know-how! This does not qualify you to be talking down to employees and others, especially customers. Most customers would not have the technical knowledge and not understand the jargon – rather than making them feel insufficient, it would be better to speak and explain to them in a manner that they would understand. Your knowledge of certain technical terms does not make you better than your employees and customers – it just means that you have a different set of skills. The main aim of knowledge is to bring about understanding and a realization that not everyone would have the same skills, just like you would not possess the skill set that someone else has.

When people work in your company or those that do business with you, they are with you to use your capabilities and knowledge and would not focus on what you cannot do. Talking down to employees and others suggests that you are focused only on their limitations, which then they too would begin to do. Once your company’s limitations come to the fore, customers and employees alike would much rather work with someone else with higher capabilities. Where would that leave you?

Talking down to employees and others is always viewed as rudeness and is frowned upon. Pressurizing people to act according to your whims could work for a while, but over time it will back fire, causing irreparable damage in most cases. It is just plain disrespectful and no self-respecting person will tolerate it for too long – in fact, in the case of customers, you could find yourself in the cross-fire of negative comments and discussions on highly visible online platforms. If you do receive feedback about this trait, rectify it immediately or else be ready to face some serious consequences that you may never recover from.

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