Ten Talk Traps That Good Leaders Should Beware

By Thomas J. Lee

Business leaders are supposed to value communication.

But not all communication is created equal. In tone or substance, the wrong kind of communication often backfires. We all know that, because we have all been there.

Here are ten kinds of "talk traps," along with a bonus. Some have their place and their moment when they serve you well, but at the wrong place or the wrong moment, they gravely compound problems. Others are always ill-advised.

In every case, they are tricky. They can easily send the wrong message or confusing and contradictory messages, and their patronizing or presumptuous attitude can alienate employees or other constituents.

Lots of leaders unwittingly fall into these traps. So here is a little guide.

Small Talk is useful for exchanging pleasantries and greetings, of course. As a social lubricant, it is usually harmless, and occasionally it can be informative. Be sure you don’t neglect it. But if small talk is the totality of your communication as you wander about the workplace, you’re missing a great opportunity. Small talk is no substitute for relevant, substantive information about the company’s direction and decisions.


Sunny Talk, also known as Sunshine Talk or Pumping Sunshine, is the tendency to paint a rosy, simpleminded picture on an unrosy situation. As a leader, you’re supposed to be optimistic and resolute. Just don’t be a Pollyanna. Employees who hear an endless stream of Sunny Talk eventually stop listening. Who can blame them? Everyone knows the real story is rarely if ever so wonderful. The problem with Sunny Talk is its patronizing assumption that employees need to be manipulated in order to be influenced. How sad.

Scare Talk is just the opposite. It constantly paints a picture of woe. It, too, can cause all kinds of problems. Just as the future is never entirely pretty, it’s never completely dismal. Employees know that. By the same token, a leader should have the courage to share unhappy news, as, for example, the reason a big customer is jumping to a competitor. It can be just what’s needed to help sharpen the edge of customer service, product design, or service quality.

Sweet Talk, also known as Smooth Talk, seduces people into taking shortcuts they probably shouldn't, or to accept a deal or situation that is not in their best interest or the company's best interest. Managers under pressure to meet deadlines, budgets, or quotas are often to blame. At its worst, Sweet Talk can result in shipping goods of poor quality, overlooking safety precautions, violating labor agreements, or disappointing customers—any of which can do severe damage to the company's reputation and cost customers or even human life.

Smart Talk is the tendency, all too common in both business and politics, to let words substitute for action. You will often see it when someone is trying to sound smarter than he actually is, or when he is pretending to have information or answers that he doesn't have. It backfires when the real information becomes available, which, in the twenty-first century, is invariably sooner than the smart talker anticipates. You will also see Smart Talk in action—or, more aptly, inaction—when organizations are averse to the change they must undertake. They find it easier to talk about change than to actually change. They are in a state of paralysis by analysis.

Simple Talk underestimates, ignores, or glosses over the nuances, uncertainty, difficulty, or general complexity of a situation or challenge. It offers iron-clad directives in spite of frequent circumstances that cry out for exceptions. As a result, it leaves people feeling like cogs rather than individuals, as units rather than persons, as a machine rather than a team. People are inclined just to shrug their shoulders rather than exercise discretion and judgment, and then to blame their management. Often customers will sense the air of resignation. Not good.

Song and Dance Talk is full of excuses. Any veteran manager or frontline supervisor has heard his share of Song and Dance Talk from underperforming employees. When managers themselves indulge in the same thing, employees quickly realize they are working for a can't-do management team and a never-will company, and they begin looking for the exit.

Slick Talk is an effort to distract someone from a legitimate concern or to mislead someone about something of legitimate concern to them. It takes its name from high-gloss, high-polish production values that call attention to themselves such as an expensive video, a lavish meeting, a slide presentation with brilliant graphics, or such extensive collateral documentation that a reader doesn't know where to begin. Spin often accompanies it.

Snarky Talk or Surly Talk frequently rears its ugly head in pressure-cooker situations when patience is wearing thin. This is just the uncivil, demeaning treatment of people. It may consist of only a single word, such as "Brilliant" or "Genius," uttered in a scornful, mocking tone. Or it may consist of extensive unnecessary background information that is implicitly condescending. It may even be a sneering, if-looks-could-kill facial expression. Managers who frequently resort to Snarky Talk are often intellectually intelligent but emotionally unintelligent, perhaps narcissistic and sometimes even belligerent.

Self Talk is perhaps the most difficult of them all, for no one else ever hears it—but everyone can see its consequences in your choices, behavior, and regard for others. Think of it as covert communication: what you are saying, and how you are saying it, to yourself. What happens to your outward dignity when you are alone in your thoughts? What are you explaining away in a mean-spirited way? How much vitriol do you heap upon yourself? Do you curse yourself? Or are you critical of others for things you excuse or overlook altogether in yourself? Are you ever privately racist or sexist in your thinking? How do you account for personal slights to your ego?

Here's the bonus, though I hesitate to use the same nomenclature. If I did, I suppose it would be Snarl Talk. Like the snarl of tangled cords behind your television or stereo, it refers to the tendency to pack too much information and too many themes into a presentation, publication, or report. Anyone on the receiving end senses a data dump and usually shuts down for want of a tighter focus.

Yet another kind of talk is the leader’s most valuable tool: Straight Talk. But all too often, leaders think they’re talking straight when they aren’t necessarily. We’ll take a look at it in a forthcoming post.