3 Critical Times When Leaders Need to Bite Their Tongues

When you’re a leader, the little things matter.

Your actions. Your words.

What gets said.

And what doesn’t.

Sometimes you have to ratchet up your courage to do something unpopular. When you know it is the right thing. Or to say something that needs to be said.

And sometimes you have to exercise incredible discipline to say nothing. To bite your tongue.

Until it bleeds, if necessary.

Be aware of those critical tongue-biting moments. That impact your effectiveness. Your leadership brand.

When a single comment can derail trust.

When your best intentions get in your way.

Humans are social animals. Our existence is based on human interaction. This is on full display when we’re leading people. Despite our personalities, moods, and preferences, we need to coexist. Communicate. Connect.

In a perfect world, you want to create an environment that allows your people to have a sense of safety and connectedness. And worth. That what they do at work matters.

As a leader, you need to take a diverse group of people, driven by individual egos and unique needs and create a team.

And the most important connection they’ll have is with you. The leader plays a pivotal role in engagement.

You’d like to establish a vibe that conveys to them:

  • You matter.
  • I see you.
  • I hear you.
  • I’m trying (my best!) to understand you
  • I respect you.
  • I trust you.
Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. I’m hoping you don’t have an oversized ego.

I’m also assuming that your team members have some level of talent — or potential — or you wouldn’t have hired them in the first place.

Too many well-intentioned leaders compromise the very environment their trying to create by trying to be too helpful.

When an employee presents you an idea, and you know you can make that idea even better, there is a tendency to want to weigh in: “Great idea, and it would be even better if you did X…or added Y…or skipped Z.”

They stand a better chance of success or realizing even better results, right?

Probably not. As Marshall Goldsmith observes, “It’s extremely difficult for successful people to listen to other people tell them something where we believe we know a better way or can improve on their idea. The fallacy is that, while it may slightly improve an idea, it drastically reduces the other person’s commitment.”

When a team member presents an idea to you, they’re emotionally invested in their idea.

And then you add your two cents. Trying to be helpful. Making their idea just a little bit better.

And you suck the commitment right out of them.

It may be good for our egos, but bad for our relationships.

Bad for engagement. Bad for initiative.

Bad for your brand as a leader.

Better to bite your tongue next time.

Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Another frequent challenge for leaders who are “just trying to be helpful” is a challenge to successful delegation and having direct reports take ownership for tasks…and results.

One of the most downloaded articles of all time from the Harvard Business Review is entitled Who’s Got the Monkey. The monkeys are the tasks that employees need to accomplish. Sometimes they’re delegated tasks from the boss (you). Sometimes, they’re a part of the role the person plays and they’re imposed by the system or the job.

When your employee comes to you to ask for help, sometimes couched as just an update, look out.

You can go into helpful “mode,” and offer suggestions. You may even offer to get involved. Make a phone call. Reach out to a contact. You can speed it along. You can ensure success.

And guess what? The success or failure of that task now depends on you.

You’ve now conditioned them to rely on you. You’ve become the enabler.

When all else fails, you’ll bail them out.

They don’t have to take responsibility.

They don’t have to think.

When direct reports push to make their tasks your responsibility, it is time to listen and to ask questions.

One of the most powerful phrases you can incorporate into those situations is “I don’t know, what do you think?”

As they offer alternatives, hoping for you to make the decision, you can ask, “which one would you recommend?”

It forces them to think, to come prepared — and to retain ownership of the delegated task.

They learn. They grow. And your back remains monkey-free.

Not every outburst requires a reaction, not every comment requires a response, and not every question needs to be answered.

Sometimes your employees just need to vent. They need to know you’ve heard them. You don’t have to speak up to solve the problem.

There are times when your direct reports will take actions that you disagree with. When they fail or come up short, it can be very tempting to tell you, “I told you so.”


You may have been right. They may have been more successful had they followed your advice.

But they don’t need you to remind them. They don’t need a snarky comment so that they understand you’re smarter. You’re better. You don’t make mistakes.

When we bite our tongue, it gives us time and the opportunity to use our other senses. It allows us to be strategic in our approach. Thoughtful in our responses.

It allows us to:

  • Listen to what is being said…and what isn’t.
  • To observe their behavior. The body language. The tone of voice.
  • Encourage behaviors from them that lead to personal growth. To think. To take initiative. To take action. To reflect. To learn.
  • Listen to their ideas. Their debrief of what they learned and what they might do differently next time.
  • Observe and to consider their motives and our responses. Objectively. Sometimes they just want to vent. Sometimes, they’re setting you up to get the monkey on your back. Sometimes they do need the help that only you can provide.

Kondraty Ryleyev was a poet, publisher and the leader of the Decembrist rebellion which tried to overthrow Czar Nicolas I. When the rebellion failed, Ryleyev was sentenced to death by hanging.

When the execution took place, the trapdoor opened and he hung from the rope…momentarily…before the rope broke and Ryleyev crashed to the ground.

The culture viewed these kinds of situations as divine intervention. Ryleyev assumed he was safe from this fate.

But rather than shut his mouth and simply be thankful that he had been spared, he shouted to the assembled crowd, “You see, in Russia they don’t know how to do anything properly, not even how to make rope!”


When Czar Nicholas was approached to sign Ryleyev’s pardon and ensure his freedom, the messenger told him what Ryleyev had said.

Nicholas stopped signing and responded, “In that case, let us prove the contrary.”

He ordered more rope and the execution took place after all.

Remember Ryleyev when you’re tempted to provide the last word. The better alternative. The comment to put someone in their place.

Or you want to improve upon their idea. Or take that monkey on your back, “just this once.”

Then bite your tongue.

If you taste a little blood in your mouth, that may be a good thing.

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