Having worked in professional services businesses for almost two decades—including running a services business for most of that span—I’ve learned an especially important lesson that applies to all forms of leadership and communication.

That lesson is that most people aren’t concerned if something is bad for other people. However, they do tend to care how it is, or might be, bad for them.

For an example of how this looks in practice, consider a situation where a client asks for something new that is out of the scope of their engagement. Generally, there are two ways to respond.

The first way, which is typically the default, is what I’d call the “bad for me” approach. This is where the client manager says that they don’t have time, that the request is out of scope, or that it is simply too much to add to their plate. Even if all the above is true, this approach almost never receives a positive response from clients.

What tends to be far more effective is to take the “bad for you” approach. In this example, the client manager might point out to the client that the new initiative would require diverting existing resources, may put important deadlines and deliverables at risk, or may require additional resources or costs to the client. They’ll end by asking if the client is fine with those outcomes in order to accommodate the new request.

Once the client understands why their request might be bad for them, rather than just inconvenient for the service provider, they often reconsider their ask.

Even though the underlying facts are the same—the client manager doesn’t have time to do something new on top of their current work for the client—the “bad for you” approach gets a much better reaction.

While none of us like to admit we are selfish, we do tend to view each situation based on how it impacts us directly, rather than how it affects others. This is why the “bad for you” approach often gets a better reaction than the “bad for me” option—it orients things around the person’s own perspective, rather than requiring them to focus on someone else.

As mentioned above, this same approach has broad applicability outside of client services. Skilled leaders and communicators excel at leveraging the “bad for you” approach. When they explain things to people on their teams, they do so in a way that is objective and realistic but focus particularly on how the team members are affected, rather than the leader or the organization as a whole.

I thought specifically about this approach in a discussion a few weeks back with a friend. He was dealing with a leader whose team had performed poorly on a critical client project and he wasn’t sure how to respond.

After listening to the details, I encouraged my friend to give his feedback to the team leader with the “bad for you” approach. Rather than focusing solely on his disappointment with the performance of the leader and team, I suggested that he make it clear that similarly subpar performance going forward may have implications for the employment of people on their team.

This was not a scare tactic. The reality was my friend’s industry was experiencing a protracted slowdown, and losing clients in that environment would likely result in there not being enough work for the current team members. Making that reality clear to the leader and their team ensured they’d understand the impact and implications of poor performance not just for the client or the business overall, but for the people for whom they were responsible.

My friend agreed this was a better approach to explaining the gravity of the situation, rather than simply sharing their own disappointment with the outcome. The latter is a “bad for me” approach, while the former is a “bad for you” approach.

The next time you are asked to do more with less, or need to give feedback about something that did not go well, think about orientating your approach around the “bad for you” frame. That’s the best way to ensure the other person sees the entire picture from their own vantage point.

Quote of The Week

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”