This is an essay from my popular 100 Days of Leadership Series. If you would like to learn how to become a leader in your organization, your community, or in your personal life, sign up here to receive these short essays directly to your inbox.
As a leader, your language is the ultimate form of leverage. It costs you relatively nothing to produce words—they’re seemingly insignificant investments. But the flavor of the words that come out of your mouth can have an immeasurable impact on you and those you lead.
Assuming you’ve done the hard work to build relationships, tame your ego, and develop trust, your team will tend to listen more intently to what you have to say than to anyone else. Whether you like it or not, leadership is a multiplier of language. Leadership is a megaphone, and everyone within earshot is impacted in a non-trivial way. For this, it’s important that you take time and effort to study, calibrate, and fine-tune your messaging.
For example, if you’re always speak in negative terms, you’re really doing three things: making it more difficult for your team to change their behavior, lowering their morale, and displaying your own lack of assuredness. If I always say, “don’t do this,” the recipient of my words will be confused and disheartened. They’ll know what not to do, but I haven’t shown them what is acceptable. In the process, they lose confidence in my leadership because I haven’t provided a solution—I lack assuredness. Make this a habit, and the consequences on a larger scale can be devastating.
By simply removing the word “don’t,” I fundamentally transform my message. By saying “do this,” I’m encouraging, empowering, and building their confidence in me. Taking a positive angle to the same message won’t be seen as a personal attack, but rather a constructive attempt to correct a mistake. They will understand that I have their best interests in mind.
Of course, it’s not humanly possible to remove all don’ts, can’ts, and other negative framings. But don’t let these form what Hall of Fame NFL coach Bill Walsh would call “a chain of negatives.” If you must say “don’t put ketchup on your hot dog,” follow it up with a solution: “put mustard on it instead.” Constant negative speech will result in your team tuning you out.
As a leader, you have leveraged language. Your words travel wider and deeper than anyone else’s. Even the smallest of words can mean the difference between inspiration and insurrection. Even the slightest variation in phrasing can mean the difference between failure and success.