My husband and I play a word game that consists of figuring out the negative names and the positive names for things. Here’s what I mean:
- For large properties owned by a single person or entity: “estate”=good; “compound”= bad
- For someone who behaves in unpredictable ways: “eccentric”=good; “crazy” = bad
- For people whose job is to execute someone else’s directives: “staff”=good; “minions”=bad
- For a newly formed religious group: “sect” = good; “cult” = bad
We’ve found that there can be a world of difference in the implications of using one word vs. another to describe something. The two of us play this game because we find it fascinating, but it also makes me think about how often we can reveal our unconscious prejudices and assumptions about people and situations through our word choices.
And when you’re a leader, the power of that is magnified. Let’s say you’re a manager, and you’re talking to someone about a guy that works for you who has lots of ideas and enjoys talking about them. If you describe his behaviors as “enthusiastic” or “passionate,” your colleague will have a very different sense of him than if you describe him as “loud” or “pushy.” Sometimes, sadly, people do this kind of subtle character assassination on purpose — when they want someone to be seen badly. But too often, we do it without conscious malice, simply based on unrecognized negative assumptions we have about someone…and don’t realize the negative impact it can have on them.
I was coaching someone once who had three direct reports. When she spoke about two of them, Emma and Joe, she nearly always used “good” words. In her description, they were forward-looking, inspiring, big thinkers, and risk-takers. These were qualities that she saw and liked in herself and in them. The third report, Damon, was very different from the three of them, and she would describe him as old-school, slow, formal, and sensitive. When I pointed out to her how these words might come across to others, she responded that they weren’t negative words, and that she thought they were accurate. So then I asked her what impression her boss had of the three, based on her descriptors. She thought for a moment, and then responded (I gave her high marks for honesty), “He probably sees Emma and Joe as big assets to the organization, and Damon as OK but not great.”
“Is that how you see him?” I asked.
“Not at all,” she acknowledged. “He’s really valuable. He reins us in and keeps us from making impulsive decisions. We need him.”
Once she had seen that, it was easy for her to see how the words she used to describe him arose out of her feeling less comfortable with him and of unconsciously wanting him to be more like Emma and Joe. And how those descriptors might lead others to see him in a less-than-positive way. I asked her to think of alternative, yet still accurate ways of describing him that would let others see the value she saw. Instead of old-school, slow, formal, and sensitive, she began to talk about him as being professional, thoughtful, measured, and considerate.
And not only did her altered description begin to change her boss’ perception of him, I noticed that she, Emma and Joe all started to treat him differently: to make better use of his complimentary strengths, and to more often acknowledge his contributions.
I encourage you to think about how you’re describing situations or people in a way that might subtly (or not so subtly) devalue them in your mind or to others. How could you describe them differently to create more openness and appreciation?