Should: Paths & Dead Ends

Should: an influential word used by leaders and team members and often intended to move people in the right direction. When used properly, should provides a path to direct actions while bringing clarity to priorities. When misused, should creates a dead end leaving one overwhelmed, and sometimes paralyzed, by competing priorities. Should is not a bad word, but I wonder if it’s often misused?

When out of context, it becomes a word used to nag us and remind us of our shortcomings and maybe all the things we didn’t do but were supposed to. Just when I respond to one should, ten more pop up! It also makes us conscious of others’ lists of shoulds tied to our expectations:
She should’ve called me first.
They should not have waited so long.
He should’ve been on time today.
All of the above, even our own shoulds, may be true. However, if we stay focused on what should have happened (which lives only in the past), we run the risk of stalling and limiting our creative options for response to create a different future. Leaders, especially, need to see possibility from many angles.

Should might work well when an authoritative leadership style is required: medical emergency responses or whenever someone needs to direct people on their tasks (imagine a director of a play explaining what each role should look like). When working collaboratively should might be more useful when re-framed as could.

Linda Graham’s Resilience book offers an abundance of exercises and insight on resilient practices. Exercise 6-10, Change Every Should to a Could (also briefly described here) asserts that changing should to could opens up possibilities. Should tends to focus on failed expectations. Could allows the mind to begin scanning for possibilities. This reflective exercise is pretty simple and with practice, may generate a mind-shift and for us to properly question the proper use of should and could.

Questions to Consider

  1. When is should appropriate in your leadership setting? When is should not useful in fulfilling objectives?
  2. Do you know anyone on your team who is too hard on themselves? How could you offer the exercise above as a way to move them out of their rut?
  3. When do you have a hard time embracing could? What are some barriers to seeing possibilities?