Leaders and managers don't always realize the impact of their language when talking with their teams. You can do many things with language, from empowering people to generating new possibilities. However, language can also create disengagement and dissent when wielded ineffectively.
Language has a lot of subtleties that can help leaders consciously create very different results. The words you use as a leader can help your organization thrive or hold it back.
So how can we as leaders use language to engage our teams and create new possibilities? Consider these questions:
Your company culture lives in your language. When I visit clients or deliver training sessions, I am always amazed at how much of the company culture is evident in the language of the people I work with.
I often hear people begin statements with, “How do I convince...” This suggests that there is a right and a wrong way to do things, or that you have a need to be right and want to prove something to your team to get them on board. Another example is when people ask me, “How do you make people do” something, which implies that these leaders need to control and decide things instead of delegating and making decisions with their teams.
When you listen to the people around you at work, what can you recognize from your company culture? Start paying attention to your language and how it reflects the company culture you want to see.
I once worked with a team leader who told me she hated her weekly team meetings because she was always the one speaking. Although team members were present in the room, no one actively participated.
When I went to observe one of her meetings, I quickly noticed that she was almost always asking “yes” and “no” questions. These are closed questions that don't encourage people to engage in the conversation. When I started asking the team open questions and leaving space for people to answer, they suddenly started talking a whole lot more.
To illustrate this point, look at the following questions:
Notice that the second question is simply an open-ended version of the first one. But which question will get a more detailed response?
One of the easiest ways to empower a team is to put a problem in front of them and ask, “What can we do about this?" Then step back and support them from there.
When empowering your team, the biggest challenge is framing or participating in discussions in a way that shows the team that they do not need to find a perfect solution on the first try. The key here is avoiding language such as “That will never work” or “What do you mean, this may not work? That is not acceptable."
I believe that FAIL means "First Attempt At Learning." Embracing this mentality means you are willing to let your team try new things and learn from their mistakes.
I meet many people who talk to me about the challenges they face in their organizations. When this happens, I can show compassion and understanding, but I also have the chance to generate new possibilities for them.
Open questions are one of the key tools to enable you to do this. I worked with a team once that asked me to convince them we should keep working using the methodology I was coaching them on. The challenge with convincing is that you can talk until you are blue in the face but the other person just needs to keep saying no.
I began by asking open questions about the challenges they were each facing that made them want to give up. We made a list, discussed and found solutions for each and every concern they had. This calmed their fears and gave them hope, and they kept working for six months using this methodology to deliver their project.
Generating possibilities is about helping people see a different perspective on the problem at hand. It can also simply require asking (sometimes more than once), “What would it take to make this possible?”
I hear many leaders and managers speak about their employees in an “us” (management) versus “them” (the team) fashion. When talking with members of their teams individually, the language shifts to “I” (the manager) versus “you” (the employee).
Using this language can create a subtle barrier between you and the team. It's not a “we” message, so you are basically telling them you are not all in this together.
When I hear this in management meetings, I point out to team leaders that they seem to be excluding themselves by using this form of language. They typically respond that this is not the case, but instead of being defensive, try to imagine how it sounds to your team. Strive to use inclusive "we" language that subtly breaks down walls instead of creating barriers.
Language has a lot of subtleties that can help create leaders consciously create very different things. The words you use as a leader can either help your organization thrive or it hold it back.
Noticing the language you use is the first step toward changing it. But remember that the words you use reflect your mindset and your way of being. Your language is a direct reflection of you, as well as both your positive and limiting beliefs. You can change your words but if you don't change your beliefs, those new words will ring false to the people around you.
What can you learn about yourself and the culture of your company by taking a closer look at the language you use every day?