As leaders, our words and actions can take on new meaning. If we aren’t careful, we can send unintended messages that damage our effectiveness and subvert morale.

For example, take that meeting you missed last week because you were dealing with a critical business issue.  Previously, you’ve stated this meeting was extremely important, but this time you couldn’t attend because you were buried. Yet, you didn’t let any of the meeting attendees know you weren’t going to make it. Given the problem you were focused on, surely everyone would just understand.

It’s not a big deal, right?

What you may underestimate is the message this sends. While it may no longer be a priority to you, this meeting could be the main part of someone’s job. One of your team may have missed her son’s baseball game preparing for this meeting. Another may have worked until early morning trying to make sure she delivered the right information. Still another may have missed a workout or sacrificed other equally important work.

And then they all show up, eager and motivated to discuss progress, make decisions and get things done. After all, this is why they work here, for you.

And then they wait. And wait. They halfheartedly joke. Then they wonder. Then – frustrated – they leave.

What message does this send? How do those employees, particularly those who sacrificed something in their personal lives, feel?  How does she feel about missing her son’s game? Was it worth it? What is the likelihood she will sacrifice again? What about the other work that could have been done instead? How excited will the team be to go the extra mile next time?

As leaders, the power differential is real. The stuff we do and say often takes on a meaning that we can’t ignore and should carefully consider. This isn’t just emotional intelligence. This is really thinking (and honestly caring) about how your actions are perceived by your teams and whether you are sending the right, intended messages.

Be careful.

Otherwise, you may find yourself leading a charge only to look back and see no one following.

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