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  • Renea Skelton, PhD

Should vs Could

"I should take out the trash,” “I should finish this assignment,” “I should lose this weight.” Doesn’t this sound like you are obligated to complete these tasks?

The word should seems to take on an energy and takes power from you allowing you to feel…well… powerless. For example, I should lose this weight because I feel like I am too heavy, or I do not feel like I fit in with society, or someone told me to. Should takes away our empowerment and replaces it with obligation. When you say “should,” you say: “I need to do this because…and if I don’t then…” It seems that a consequence will trail the intended action if you do not decide to follow through. Sound enticing? Sound motivating? Not so much.


The feeling of relinquishing power can be detrimental to some. It's a loss of control. For these individuals, “should” may possibly appear as a staple in life. For example, some individuals believe that they should home-school their children, have a full-time job outside of the family and raise their children single-handedly, or plan a class reunion solely by themselves. Your first instinct is, “Wow! They really have it figured out!” But in reality, and in self-awareness, their thought process is intoxicated with “should.” This eventually becomes their norm and they can become robotic to the demands.


In previous years, I interviewed many leaders who have self-proclaimed “go-to” employees within their organizations. Without much surprise, I found that when a leader is in need of task accomplishment, they turn to their identified “go-to” person to complete the task. However, when I asked the “go-to” individual if they are stressed or happy when completing the task, they usually remark that they are “very stressed with the demands placed on them” and that they have “lost their joy in the organization.” When I asked if they bring their concerns to their leadership - they do not. Many have stated that "leadership thinks highly of me" and "who else would do the job?" Does this sound familiar?


Are you that “go-to” person in your organization or family life? Could it be that you (or the individual within the organization) is simply self-sabotaging by a play of simple but powerful words and just unaware? When individuals become conditioned to a “should” mentality, they have the possibility to become victims to a label that the organizational leader has placed on them. For example, their “should’s” become the organization’s norm - they become the organization's work horse. Think about it. When you observe a “go-to” person consistently being approached to handle company matters because organizational leaders see this person as one that will handle difficult tasks…others observe this. From this observation, a culture of perception is establish and employees feel that they need to strive to be the same - a workhorse in a culture of should.


As leaders, how do we mitigate this constant personal demand that we place on our employees and on ourselves? How do we become less stressed and attempt to find self-awareness that could improve our outlook of demands that are placed on others and on ourselves? One small action is to simply replace the word “should” with “could.”


“I could take out the trash,” “I could finish this assignment,” “I could lose this weight.” WOW! Can you feel the empowerment? Can you recognize the choice that you have? The power behind a word is amazing. It frees you from an obligation because there is a choice involved…not a demand. You place boundaries and do not limit yourself to what could happen. Think about it. If you do not complete something that you should have done, you may feel inadequate, less powerful, and to the extreme…a failure. But if you do not complete something that you could have done, how does that make you feel?


Leaders who do not understand the “should” vs “could” concept can easily find themselves on a task-driven path of destruction. Imagine this scenario: A leader arrives into an organization to find a plethora of subordinates with a desire to follow. They want to be inspired, motivated, and skillfully developed. The leader attempts to deliver demands with language such as “you should meet this goal, you should meet this quota, you should be the go-to” and while this leader believes that the demands will be met, a should culture is established and a potentially toxic environment is created. Employees want to meet the demands of the leader but do not feel empowered. The demands are numerous and motivation begins to decrease. Is this scenario familiar? Were you an employee or leader in this type of organization? Is this you in your personal life or in your home? Statistically, most individuals desire leadership, can be motivated to follow, and crave empowerment. However, when “should” is the organizational culture, employees will do the exact opposite. The demands become too overwhelming, employees become less motivated, and may realize that they cannot meet the expectations of their leader. The leaders wonders why this occurs. Should versus could is one of the reasons why.


As an organizational leader, it is crucial to be aware of your vocabulary that consists of should versus could. Of course, there are instances in which should is appropriate to use based on your organizational structure and demands. As a leader, I challenge you to ask yourself, “where does this show up in my organization or in my life?,” “what is my primary goal for this demand?,” and “what are the consequences if this demand is not met?” Simply asking yourself these questions can help prevent a culture of “should.” Furthermore, simply replacing the words can empower your employees to complete the demands of your organization.


Should versus could. This strategic play on words can take on a different meaning personally and organizationally. By recognizing the difference, you “could” change your personal outlook, your leadership behavior, and improve your communication as an organizational leader.


- Renea Skelton, PhD


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