Why The Words We Use Matter

by | Oct 30, 2019 | Leadership

What we say and how we say it matters. Our words reflect not only what we think but also how we feel. It can take practice, but I’ve learned that listening carefully to the words someone uses can tell you a lot about them.

Low-Respect v. High-Respect

Let’s look at an example of how a leadership team might talk about the workers on their shop floor:

A Low-Respect Leader A High-Respect Leader
Laborer Teammate
They are resistant to change. We haven’t resolved the employees’ underlying concerns.
They’ve had it really good for a long time, and now they feel entitled. I can understand why they are concerned. We’ve been successful for a long time, and they want to see that continue.
We have a bunch of employees who have been here a long time, and they don’t want to change. We are blessed with an experienced workforce. We need to figure out how to tap into their knowledge.
The supervisors are really weak. We haven’t invested in our supervisors. They have a really tough job.
They’re just a temp. Every person who works here is part of our team.
People resist change. People don’t resist change; they resist being changed. We need to include them in the process.
What kind of incentive should we offer? They’ll only respond to dollars. Money incentives are superficial and short-lived. What can we do to win their hearts and minds?
People quit because they can get another job for $0.25/hour down the road. If people are quitting for $0.25, we’re doing something wrong as leaders.
This new generation just doesn’t want to work. Every generation thinks the next generation has gone to hell, and it’s not right to paint everyone with the same paintbrush. We need to adapt and figure out how to engage them.

** Excerpt from How to Fix a Factory – Available Nov 5 on amazon.com.

Note the difference in word choice between these two columns.  How might these words impact the way a workforce views its leadership? Words have meaning and are a critical part of communicating company values.

Passive v. Active

Let’s look at another example. This time we’ll focus on the words used to describe an action item.  Compare these two statements:

  1. We’re going to meet to discuss a plan for an approach for moving forward.
  2. We’re going to implement corrective actions this week.

Statement 1 is passive.  It’s squishy and non-committal.  In contrast, statement 2 is definitive and action-oriented.  The focus is on the action, even though they may need to meet, plan, and discuss during this process.  Statement 2 shows commitment.

Us v. Them

Our final example is the simple use of ‘we’ and ‘they.’  You can learn a lot about who a person considers part of their team by carefully listening for these pronouns.  For instance, if the head of operations refers to the sales team as ‘they,’ he is probably more connected to his operations team than the overall company.

Now it’s time for a quick true story. I once worked for a company that had horrible spats between its functional silos.  The CEO finally banned the use of the word ‘they’ to refer to anyone inside the company.  I remember him pointing his finger at us saying, “Anyone inside this company is WE.  It’s US.  THEY are out there.  THEY are the competition.”

I encourage you to listen carefully at your next few meetings and interactions.  You may be surprised at the insights you can glean.

Words matter. The philosopher Lao Tzu said it well,

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

Finding this information helpful? Feel free to drop me a line or pick up my book, How to Fix a Factory, starting November 5 on amazon.com.