Words You Lead By

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Susan J. Bethanis

Do you “check up on” your team members or “check in with” each member? Do you try to “fix” your employees or do you help “develop” your employees' skills to be more successful? This is neither semantics nor idle wordplay. It’s about effective leadership and success through language.

It’s imperative that today’s leaders realize that it's the language of leadership that actually influences what occurs within their organizations. Leaders have the ability to change their organizations by changing their language! The words we use can “make or break” relationships with employees. Carefully crafted messages go a long way in personal and organizational success.

Today’s workforce wants more choice, creative license and autonomy. They don’t want to be micromanaged. “Micromanaging” is one example of leaders using 20th-century “command and control” language for a 21st-century mindset and workforce. Leaders all too often use language that is riddled with militaristic or hierarchical metaphors (i.e., “let’s gather the troops to drum out a killer application”). Not only can this language incite a fear-based culture, it also works against what leaders say they are striving for: to be more collaborative and engaging. The problem is that you wouldn’t know this from some leaders’ language.

Susan J. Bethanis, author of Leadership Chronicles of a Corporate Sage, offers leaders six suggestions to think differently about language and to convey messages more powerfully and positively:

1. Slow down and be conscious that your language and intent may not be aligned. If it’s team building you’re after, use “empowering” language rather than “overpowering” words.

  • Don’t say: “It’s a minefield out there. Let’s divide and conquer on this next project.”
  • Do say: “We are in a tough situation, which means it’s even more important to work together for success. Let’s start by creating two teams to flesh out these two parts of the project.”

2. Expunge absolutes. Avoid using “always” and “never” when communicating with others, especially when giving feedback.

  • Don’t say: “You always show up to work late and never finish your work on time. You need to get your act together!”
  • Do say: “I’ve noticed that you have shown up for work late twice in the last week, and you slipped two milestone deadlines on Project X. What’s your plan to change this pattern?”

3. Make sure to balance your need to “drive” change with words that actually “inspire” change.

  • Don’t say: “This project has to be done by the end of the week or heads are going to roll.”
  • Do say: “Completion of this project is critical to the survival of the company. What will it take to finish the project on time?”

4. Use inquiry (ask) more than advocacy (tell) when you coach and problem solve with your employees.

  • Don’t use: “You didn’t make your sales numbers last month. Please recontact the 10 CIO names I gave you and get back to me.”
  • Do use: “I noticed that your sales numbers are down from the month before. What do you attribute the change to? What have you tried so far to make up for it? What options have worked, what hasn’t worked? What support do you need from me?

5. Be clear in your requests of others. Include specific actions and date needed.

  • Don’t say: “Will you do me a favor? I need a draft of the marketing plan for my boss.”
  • Do say: “I have a request: Will you do a first pass on the marketing plan? Please use our Excel template and do two pages of activities to start. Does Wednesday work for you to get it to me?”

6. Reframe how you think about “change” when it comes to people on your team. We “fix” cars and planes; we don’t “fix” people. And, definitely, avoid “quick fixes.”<

  • Don’t do a quick “structure” fix (i.e., a “re-org” like tucking someone you don’t get along with “under” someone else)
  • Do look at “culture” first, then the “structure.” What skills need to be developed across your team in order to work with customers better, sell better, get along better, and so on.  What are the gaps that exist? How can we then reskill, restructure or add people to fill those gaps?

Language plays a primary role in how well we lead. In order to change our language, we must slow down and be aware of what we say and notice the influence and impact our words have. Start by noticing now: What are the words you lead by?

About the Author(s)

Susan J. Bethanis is CEO/Founder of Mariposa Leadership, Inc., a 12-person San Francisco-based leadership coaching firm in its 10th year; and author of Leadership Chronicles of a Corporate Sage (Kaplan Publishing, 2004), voted 2004 Top 10 Business Books by CEOrefresher.com. Her 1993 doctoral dissertation focused on the inexplicable link between language and change in organizations. You may contact Sue at [email protected]. Please go to www.mariposaleadership.com for more information on Mariposa Leadership, Inc.