Language matters

Communication  Leadership
23 November, 2015

As leaders, your words carry immense weight - use them wisely

Have you faced a situation when what you said was completely misconstrued and led to far more angst than you bargained for? Think about why this happened. Could this have been because of your choice of words and the language you used?

When we were young, we were chided to mind our p’s and q’s – a reminder by our elders to be polite. But somehow, as we get older, we forget the importance of using the right words. What you say and how you say it gets even more important as a leader.  Someone once said, “Thoughts become words. Words become actions. Actions become character. Character is everything”.

So, my message today is about the language that you use as a leader and the impact it has.

Why the language you use as a leader is even more important

Language, if used in the right manner can be a powerful tool to energise, empower and positively impact your team. Sloppy or flippant language on the other hand can confuse team members and in the worse case, demotivate them or divide them.

Now, language – in terms of what you say and how you say it – is simply the communication of what you think or feel. But here is where it gets tricky.

As author Kevin Allen emphasises, when this language is the language of leaders in the company, then it means much more. It becomes what the company is saying. And so, it has a cascading effect. It sends out ‘cultural cues’ that define how team members behave.

It encourages or discourages a certain type of behaviour. People fall in line with it because they believe that this is what their company expects of them.

Since it comes from the top, it is copied. It translates into action. Importantly, because it is a part of everyday speak, it is reinforced in many ways and at many levels.

So as leaders, we must become much more sensitive to the impact that we have. We need to be much more mindful of what we choose to say and not say, the words we use, how we say it, who we say it to, and why we even say it. We need to understand who and what this impacts and how far reaching this can be. This is not an exaggerated concern. It is a very real one. What you say is being observed by your team members, your peers and other people in the company. It gets passed on and debated and interpreted and reconstructed, in more ways than you possibly imagine. Nothing is ever really ‘off the record’.

This isn’t just limited to the formal communication that you make – the structured emails and messages to select audiences. That is easier to control and correct. This extends to pretty much everything that you say on a daily basis, the kind of reactions that they elicit and the values and choices that you stand for. In fact, this informal communication is what counts for much more, because it is more authentic.

And as you can imagine, all of this only gets multiplied in the context of social media and increasing digital connectivity. Everything you say is amplified much more now. Not just that, there is only a shadow line between what you say in a personal context and what you say in your capacity as a leader.

Language tips

Unfortunately, not many of us think particularly hard about our choice of words. We tend to overlook many of the language nuances. Remember that words have a lot of power and say a lot about your style and your approach. And you have full control of what you say and how you say it.

Here are some guidelines on harnessing the power of language every day:

  • Be precise with the choice of your words. The words that you use carry far more weight than you think they do. Make sure that it is conveying the right intent. Your words can get distorted or amplified. So, you need to manage this accordingly.
  • Use positive language to motivate team members. Avoid negative talk or phrases. David Kelley, Founder and Chairman and Tom Kelly, General Manager of IDEO, in their Harvard Business Review article Use Language to Shape a Creative Culture, share how at their company, they use the phrase “How might we…?” to counter negative speech patterns. The use of ‘how’ opens up possibility, ‘might’ encourages experimentation without the pressure to not fail at it and ‘we’, makes it a collective responsibility. This is their way of encouraging team members to actively look for new possibilities and alternatives. It is strongly ingrained in their culture and drives their creative approach.
  • Shape your language into questions that can make people think and help drive action. Putting questions to people can really help people think for themselves.
  • Don’t overuse superlatives. Not everything has to be “awesome”, “incredible” or “amazing”. When you label routine things as extraordinary, it can come across as less authentic. Reserve these superlatives for something that is truly special.
  • Avoid using “but”. It is a contradictory conjunction. If you are praising someone don’t dilute the message by adding in “but”. Author Brian Evje gives an example. For instance, when you address your team with, “This group did great work last quarter, but now we have to focus.”  Better to say, “Your great work last quarter is just the momentum we need, because this quarter will be a bigger challenge.”  Instead of “but,” use “and,” “however,” “yet,” “except,” or “that said”.
  • Always, use language that conveys respect. Be professional. Even when you are angry.
  • Think before hand what you want to say and how you want to say it. Jot down your thoughts before an important interaction.

Here are some words and phrases that can be quite powerful:

  • Use “we” statements. This is something that our GCF (Godrej Capability Factors) emphasises as well – look out of the window to give credit to others (“we”) and look in the mirror to take responsibility when things don’t go right (“I”).
  • Together” – Use this word often. It helps foster collaboration. It shows that we are in this together and leads to better team work.
  • Let me repeat back to you” – after a conversation, you may find it useful to recap what the other person has said. It shows that you are listening and internalising. This can also reduce any misinterpretation.
  • “That sounds important to you; let me write it down”.  This is one of the go-to phrases suggested by the Lighthouse leadership blog. This signals to your team that you value what they said. It also helps you organise your thoughts and follow through. Else, your team may feel that you don’t take them seriously enough. Andy Grove, the ex-head of Intel, once said, “Equally important is what ‘writing it down’ symbolises….the act implies a commitment, like a handshake, that something will be done”
  • Let’s agree on next steps that we will commit to” –  conclude a meeting with this phrase. It will ensure that the time is well spent. This also makes people feel more accountable. It helps move things forward and ensures that the discussion leads to action
  • Yet”. Writer Ben Casnocha says “suppose your boss pulls you aside and tells you: ‘you don’t have the right skills for a project’. Then suppose a different situation, where your boss tells you: ‘you don’t have the right skills for the project, yet’. The word yet makes all the difference in the world. In the first example, you feel like a dud. In the example with ‘yet’, you feel like you may not be ready now, but could be in the future”.
  • Will” – replace “can” or “try” or “should” with “will”. It shows a much more positive intent.

So please spend some thinking about the kind of language that you are using. What impact is it having on others? And what is the kind of language and culture that we are encouraging as a company?

Try using some the tips listed above. And if you have any words or phrases that have worked well for you, please share those.

P.S. Apart from the words we use, our body language says a lot about us. And our body language should match our words. This is a topic that I will address in a future piece!

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