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3992935923_00c7c483bb_o“Shall” is a command.   The word is archaic, and heavy with Old Testament baggage.

“Should” is a frequent refrain I hear in my work.

As managers, we think that our people should know what we expect of them.

It’s not true.  A significant theme in my client work — and in most management roles I’ve held — is finding gaps between what people think their jobs are, and what managers expect them to do.

We’ll never fill all the gaps.   We can bridge them, each day, with conversation and relationship.   This is the work of managing; and we can practice, on the way to mastery.

I hear heavy self-judgement when leaders tell me that they should know how to manage people, as a matter of common sense or intelligence.  Or a class they took in bschool.  It’s actually a product of time and experience.

Many worthwhile challenges require more practice than knowledge.

Career advice contains a universe of shoulds.  A recent HBR blog post advanced the position that we should be blogging.  A few people in my quiet corner of Twitter did not agree:

Idea blogging is best combined with a salaried, perhaps tenured, position. Writing thoughtfully is hard work.

Virginia Postrel, via Twitter, @vpostrel

In 2012, I had some wonderful conversations with friends, colleagues, and mentors about the pressure we felt to do unpaid work, usually in the service of personal branding.  (Personal branding:  another should, one that brings up more than just a little bit of my resistance.)

One kind friend asked what would happen if I were to stop working on my brand.  Listening to her question, I actually felt myself relax for a moment.  The problem isn’t branding.  It’s me.  I do this to myself!

Before the holidays, my mom asked the family should she bake her usual array of holiday cookies this year?  I voted to break tradition:  more time and fewer to-dos for Mom, and healthier eating for the entire family.  (Did I miss her cookies?  A bit!)

When we say should, we’re using the past tense — it can be a denial of the way things are.

“Should” seeds stress, and even pain.  In the face of “should”, we can deploy a powerful incantation, like “will.”

Or “no.”

A family holiday is not the food.  Your brand won’t emerge from your blog post, or an unpaid speaking engagement.

Workplace relationships exist in the space between what is, and what will be.  Should looks back; will looks forward.

In 2013, I will continue to change my relationship with should.

Photo:  Moses by pasukaru76, used under Creative Commons License.