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Words Should Matter to Leaders

Words Should Matter to Leaders

In an exchange with a colleague the other day, I shared a phrase my grandmother often used to say, “nothing’s so bad it can’t get worse.”  Throughout my life, I have thought about those words and how grateful I am to have never adopted such an outlook on how I lead or live my life. During my weekends, I work as a certified leadership coach and have had many people share such experiences of having been exposed to similar messages and the affect those messages have had on their lives.  The words conveyed have led them to put themselves down or affected their self-esteem for long periods of time.  I think we can all remember a point in time that proves our choice of words matters.  And I believe the words we use at work, in conversation or in feedback, are especially important.  Let’s face it, we spend most of our lives in the workplace, whether it’s in an office or on a factory floor. 

Being A Leader

Therefore, good leadership demands we pay attention to what we say and how we say it. And I am purposeful when I use the word “leadership”.  I do not often use the word manager to describe myself or my job title; I prefer to be known as a leader.  Why? Because I believe projects are managed and people are led.  It’s a simple word choice, but a huge paradigm shift.  I also believe anyone who cares about their work, brings the best of themselves to their vocation and looks out for their colleagues is a leader regardless of his or her title. 

Today, arguably more than at any other time, we need to rehumanize the workforce, especially because it’s harder to attract great talent. This means leaders must learn to say what they mean and mean what they say.  I know it’s hard, and I believe it is difficult for everyone.  This is not an introvert or extravert situation, although those traits can come into play.  Rather, what we say and how we say it can either create a culture in which people thrive, feel valued and appreciated or not.  That fact goes directly to employee satisfaction and retention, which in turn can lead to the success or failure of a business. 

Providing Feedback

Feedback is vital, whether the words are constructive or instructive (notice I didn’t say positive or negative).  It should be continuously given to create a culture in which each person is certain where they stand.  Few things cause more friction (better known as loss of productivity) than a work environment in which gossip, innuendo and talking behind people’s backs rule the day.  As a leader, I believe we all have a daily decision to make. Am I willing to put forth the effort to lead by example, to be conscious of the words I use, to have the difficult conversations, and to praise when the occasion calls for it?  And believe me, there is a dearth of praise given across the board.  A simple verbal thanks is nice, but a handwritten note of appreciation can make you a rock star.    

As leaders, easily the most critical, but most avoided verbal interaction is the difficult conversation around constructive feedback or what Kim Scott calls “radical candor”.  Scott is the author of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity (Scott is also a former executive at Google and Apple).  In these situations, we must choose our words carefully to ensure we are critiquing behavior and not the person.  In one of her examples, which might appear Scott is not following her own advice, she recalls her former boss, after several conversations, Sheryl Sandberg bluntly telling her that Scott’s habit of saying “um” a lot during presentations made her sound stupid.  Wow!  Not many of us I venture to say, including myself, would ever be bold enough to go that far.  However, Sandberg clearly had taken the time to get to know Scott so that according to Scott, in fact, it was the kindest thing Ms. Sandberg could have said to her at the time.  It got her attention and she successfully addressed the issue.

Creating a Great Culture

So how do we create a great culture where words are used appropriately and how do we know we’re on the right track?  You might choose to follow Sandberg’s lead and really get to know those people with whom you spend most of your life.  I don’t mean be best friends.  I’m talking about human connection.  Do you know what those you lead like to do outside of work, if they have children or pets, or if they have some quirky talents?  For example, my boss knows I can ride a unicycle and love Peeps™.  You get the idea.  It’s all about humanizing your interactions and one way to ensure those relationships are cohesive is through knowing your team well enough to understand what you say and how you say it matters.  What you say matters not only for the immediate outcome of a conversation, but it affects the bottom-line.   There’s a reason for the phrase, “People don’t leave their jobs, they leave their management.”

There are numerous assessment tools available to assist in your cultural transformation.  The Leadership Circle Profile or The DiSC teambuilding workshop are a couple of the more popular assessments which can help groups understand each other’s preferences and work styles.  Of course, there’s the standard Myers-Briggs, but I find the two mentioned above more insightful.  Importantly, it’s not just about taking the test and filing the results away.  Rather, sharing the findings has a clear business payoff.  I laughed with a boss once how spot on one of these assessments was (both constructively and instructively) regarding my work style and I have shared it with my team so they might understand how I prefer to work and how I prefer to be spoken to.

But also know this.  You will mess up.  We all do.  You will have good days and not so good days.  Like most everything else, the process of being aware of what you say and how you say it is a practice.  It takes time, energy and commitment.  But you can count on a guaranteed ample return on your investment.

About the author

Chancy Lyford

J. Chancy Lyford is the Division Chief for External Affairs, Performance and Support at the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).  He was...

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