what should your tone sound like when you’re the boss?

Earlier this year, I did an episode of the Ask a Manager podcast about what kind of tone to use in tricky conversations at work. That episode was one of the reasons I was excited about launching a podcast in the first place, because while I talk a lot about tone here, it’s hard to demonstrate tone in writing. It turned out to be a really popular episode, and since then, I’ve had requests from listeners to do more episodes about tone in other situations. For example, here’s one such letter:

I wanted to ask if you might consider doing a follow-up podcast on tone the boss can use for tricky conversations.

I confess that even now, at director-level, I can still struggle with getting tone right, like during a crucial conversation with my staff, particularly if they’ve become defensive or otherwise react unprofessionally. I’ve beaten myself up after those tough interactions, because I’ve either overly softened or, on the other end of the spectrum, sounded like a stern or annoyed mom instead of an objective boss/coach. It would be so helpful if you could give some tone demos for those of us in management!

So this episode of the show is all about tone for managers. It’s 24 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen right here:

And if you like the show, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Semi-related, but if you have concerns about tone, I highly suggest getting Alison’s book in audio format! I read it and am now listening to it and it’s really helpful!

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Plus listening to you read ‘The Master’ and the ‘my employee is casting curses’ out loud is hilarious.

        1. MsChandandlerBong*

          I usually prefer to read rather than listen, but now I have to buy the audio version to listen to these!

    1. LQ*

      SO STRONGLY AGREE! The audiobook was really well done and really gave a lot more with tone. Highly highly recommend the audiobook version. (Which reminds me to go review it!)

    2. Maolin (OP)*

      It’s funny, shortly after sending that note to Alison, her new book was on my Audible recommendations list. I’d read the book by that point, but audiobook is such the perfect medium for that book, where each example she gives has the best language and right tone to use. Love that she narrated it herself! The chapter about being the boss was exactly what I was looking for when I’d written in after the other podcast. Thanks for doing the follow-up podcast and for the audiobook Alison!

  2. BRR*

    This is one of those posts/podcasts I wish I could anonymously send my manager. Le sigh

  3. UtOh!*

    I have a manager who has no idea how to talk to her staff, she is the same way as the original poster, either too soft or stern as if she’s speaking to her children. She has gone so far as (when she’s being Mommy) to tell us to look at her and nod our heads that we understand and will concur with her ridiculous made up rule of the moment (which is another issue). How does one respond to this type of boss? I really try to avoid going to her for anything because she’s so inconsistent.

    1. Steph*

      It’s hard on one hand being a manager and trying strategies to get staff to listen. While this method sounds terrible I definately can relate to trying something so infantile when you get nothing back. It’s rough being a manager!

  4. Naptime Enthusiast*

    This is perfect timing, thank you! I need to have a tough conversation with some volunteers, this should help get the right message across :)

  5. Turtlewings*

    Because the podcasts are transcribed by a volunteer in her (his?) spare time, it takes a while.

  6. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Slight correction to the comment just above this one: I do pay the person who’s creating the transcripts.

    But here’s a link to a past discussion of this:


    This is coming up every week and I do hear that there’s interest in having transcripts earlier, but right now this is the way that’s feasible for me to do it, and it’s not something I’m going to be able to rehash every week.

    1. Free Meerkats*

      You might consider adding a phrase after “You can get a transcript of last week’s episode here.”

      “You can get a transcript of last week’s episode here; this week’s transcript will be up in about a week.”

  7. alana*

    Allison, do you have any advice for working on tone overall? I like my direct reports, but I don’t want to be their friend; I want to be their boss. But every time I open my mouth, I find myself talking like I’m their peer (and desperate for their approval). I realize I’m not comfortable just stating clearly what I want or need, or what we’re going to do, without undercutting it, making a joke to break any tension, making a softening promise of follow-up that I can’t realistically follow through on, etc. I know it’s a problem; it ends up making me less clear, it makes it harder to distinguish a suggestion from an order, and it makes the more uncomfortable conversations REALLY tough because there’s no precedent of calm discussion.

    I keep resolving to do better, but it’s a hard habit to break — every week I go into a 1:1 saying, ok, this time I will talk slowly and clearly and calmly and deliver some mild feedback! And then every time my “must keep conversation normal and comfortable” muscle memory kicks in, and I’m paddling like crazy under the surface to keep it light and fun, and I don’t communicate effectively around what I meant to say.

    Any tips for practicing a new tone until it’s second nature? With specific issues big enough to need a script, I can get halfway there, but even in the interaction I find myself veering off script, and with things I don’t script, it’s much harder.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This gets at a piece of it, but not the whole thing:


      But I love your question because I think you’ve captured exactly what a lot of people struggle with (although a lot of them don’t have the same insight into it that you have). Any chance you’d want to come on the podcast and talk it through with me? I think it would be really interesting (and hopefully helpful to you and others). If so, email me at alison@askamanager.org and I can tell you more about how it would work!

      1. Lisa*

        I have the same issue and would love to listen to a podcast on this subject. I think it can be especially challenging as a woman when we’ve been so conditioned to be pleasant and agreeable and deviating from those expectations can really impact self-image and perceptions of worth. And the consequences of straying too far into a stern tone brings the potential implications of being called “shrill”, “naggy” or “b*tchy.”

        1. Birch*

          Yes, this! Particularly the specific issues around situations like managing other women, being a young manager, managing older men, etc. which all have different social dynamics.

        2. misspiggy*

          A podcast on the gender aspects of this would be great. I set myself the task of learning the tone of a friend who is fantastic at getting people to pay attention – she just gives off this vibe that she’s tiny and quiet now, but you do not want to know what’s going to happen if you don’t pay attention. Acting classes for managers should be mandatory!

  8. Alinea*

    This is a question I didn’t know I had :)

    My former senior peer, now supervisor, didn’t change his tone but we definitely don’t talk about the same things we used to.

  9. Nacho*

    Not a boss, but in a position where a major part of my job is telling newer employees how to do their job. I’ve been told I sound condescending when I talk to them, which I blame in part to my boss’ insistence that I not just give them the answer but “guide, don’t provide them” in order to teach them how to use the tools available to them/not lean too heavily on me.

    Any suggestions for how to get tone right when you’re telling somebody something they really should know, and that they should have looked up for themselves on our in-house website instead of asking me?

    1. misspiggy*

      Perhaps it’s not just tone, but content? I’d physically go with them to a desk and support them through finding the answers, so they are the ones doing it with (kind) prompting from you.

      When they come to you again, I’d say, ‘So talk me through what you’ve already tried.’ If they haven’t been proactive, tell them to use the tools and come back to you if they get stuck. If they have tried, take note of where they’re getting stuck. Give them tips for navigating the system rather than the answer.

      Unless, of course, it turns out the right info is actually in someone’s head. So many times I’ve been like, ‘What you need is in the Soandso Report from two years ago. Duh!’ Then I’ve double checked and the actual knowledge comes from reading the Soandso Report against my own understanding of ten years of other stuff.

      In which case, if you’re not in a position to improve knowledge management systems, the only fair thing to do is just tell them what they need to know.

  10. hayling*

    This was a great ep! I am really happy that the podcast is back and the episodes are longer.

  11. misspiggy*

    I loved this podcast. However, it brought back horrible memories of a manager who was very assertive in tone – but following his instructions would have resulted in us betraying our professional knowledge and ethics. (Which we were calm and clear about, but it made no difference.)

    Of course most of my team left. But if only he had learned to listen as well as tell us what to do, we could have avoided ruining years of work.

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