For leaders, words are instruments of influence. Some may consider it to be pedantry, sophistry or even artifice, however when it comes to engaging and motivating a team, choice of words matters and great leaders know the words and phrases to choose, and those to avoid.
Over the years I've watched law firm leaders at all levels define their success by their words and conduct. Some have been exceptional. Others have made me cringe! At times the lack of insight to the negative impact of leaders using poorly chosen narratives has been breathtaking.
While academics might argue about where they sit on the hierarchy of leadership traits, there is little doubt that communication, self-awareness, compassion and emotional intelligence are attributes that sit somewhere in the top half of the list. Over the years, I've admired many of the truly great leaders of our time demonstrate an innate ability to know just what to say in that moment; and perhaps, more importantly, what not to say. Because the right choice of words can define true leadership – while the wrong choice of words often outs the managers who are simply wearing a leader's cloak.
Successful organisations realised long ago that enterprise conversations can be reoriented and recalibrated through a change in terminology – as much as a change in approach. So too can successful leaders modify behaviors and relationships — and also build trust — through empathetically reorganising their vocabulary. I'm not for one moment suggesting that I get it right all the time – I don't. However, for the sake of starting the conversation, I thought I'd share five of the words and phrases that to my mind, have no place in leadership vernacular:
- Never — it's a word that is sometimes used for emphasis or impact, but it's hardly inspirational and simply closes doors, leaving no room for discussion or creativity. True leaders are more inclined to ask, "how might it be done?" or "let's explore the possibility".
- I — it's a short word but it's the antithesis of leadership. When a manager (yes, manager) says to a subordinate that "I would like you to..." or even "I think you should...", it demonstrates the myopic lens through which they view the world, rather than the interests of the team. A narrow self-interested focus is rarely a positive trait for a leader. Why not instead ask a Socratic question that allows the subordinate to choose the necessary solution? How about "Do you think that we might improve the outcome by ...?".
- Can't and Won't – neither inspires confidence. True leaders encourage others to look for solutions, rather than simply identifying problems. Why not ask a question again here? Such as, "have you considered or researched the XX or the XX options?". This encourages your team to do their own research and feel confident in the solution/s they suggest.
- Require — it's an authoritative term that certainly puts subordinates in their place. Telling a team member that you "require them" to take a particular action isn't conducive to team play – let alone growing morale and building an inclusive culture. It's cringeworthy!
- Obviously — is there a more condescending term in the English language? It might be obvious to you, however a leader is hardly going to invite dialogue once the subordinates have been made to feel stupid. You may as well tell them "it's not rocket science", roll your eyes and go back to your office!
Dismissive language and egocentric attitudes lead to tone deaf conversations with a team. Managers might feel like they are getting away with it, but insensitivity in linguistics — whether through ignorance or laziness — is far from the playbook of the highly effective leader.
True leaders understand that respectful, equitable language that encourages collaboration and empowers the team will build long-term trust and ultimately deliver the best outcomes.
They're my top 5 most "unleader-like words" – what words don't sit well with you when it comes to your leadership style?
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