Family/CommunicationLeadershipReflectionMay 24, 20160The Power of Words…Especially For Leaders

Are you being dismissive or belittling without even knowing it? As leaders, we need to be conscious of how we talk about things and people...

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? 

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