February 10, 2022 | 5-minute read (992 words)
While for some, words are considered merely a combination of syllables uttered without much thought, the language used by leaders can have a profound impact on employees.
A leader’s words can inspire, boost morale and foster relationships — or the opposite. Framing messages with the incorrect choice of words, even with the best of intentions, can cause misunderstandings that have a negative ripple effect across the organization.
Of course, it’s not always easy to know which words to use and which to steer clear of. Sometimes leaders unknowingly or by force of habit choose words with a negative connotation or that come across as insincere or downright harsh to the very employees they are trying to engage.
Here’s a guide to the most powerful (yet short) words that will make your leadership language more compelling.
Four-letter magical words to use with employees
Help: This is among the hardest words to say in the workplace. But it is also one of the most powerful words for leaders. Asking for help from those you lead shows respect and a willingness to listen, which are qualities of a great leader.
Seeking employees’ help also gives them a chance to shine and strengthens their leadership skills. Recall the wise saying that leadership is not about being the smartest person in the room. Leadership is about elevating and inspiring others to become their best selves.
If you need assistance, ask your team with sincerity and humility, "Can you help me?" or simply “I need your help.” You will likely gain their respect.
Hope: Perhaps the word “hope” has become as overused as another four-letter word: “hate.” It is often used to convey a wish, as in, “I hope I get a raise” or “I hope my boss likes my ideas.” But this is the passive version of hope.
When combined with other words, like to or for, hope becomes more powerful. Consider the statements “I hope to see you soon” and “We hope for victory.” Just adding the “to” or “for” conveys a passion and energy to the idea of hope.
In all its permutations, the word “hope” has a positive connotation that builds employees up.
Kind: Unkindness surely doesn’t take leaders far. Showing kindness is even more important when you’re being tough. And in these difficult times of the COVID-19 crisis, bringing kindness to your leadership approach is even more meaningful.
Being kind is about having a respectful tone and following good manners when communicating with employees. It also entails understanding what’s going on with those you lead and understanding the personalities you work with.
Indeed, kindness is a strength and when used right, it facilitates strong relationships that foster growth and better business results.
Show: When you approach your team for help, the best way is to ask to be shown instead of just requesting input. Ask to be taught or trained and you’ll have a win-win-win situation! You learn something new and foster a workplace culture where everyone is receptive to growing and developing.
Open: Leaders often talk about the need to navigate change in the organization without ever sending the explicit message to employees that they themselves are open to change. They may not convey their own preparedness for doing things differently.
Instead of making employees guess, clearly state your willingness to try new methods or strategies by using the word “open” in your communication, as in, “I am open to your ideas of redesigning our product packaging.”
When you use the word “open” appropriately, your team will start to see you as a change agent instead of someone who just talks about it. Ultimately, that will spark more innovation in your workplace.
With: It’s evident that people go further “with” than they go alone. So why not consider using this word more often in your professional communications?
Pair up two or more people on projects, assign a two-person team to give a presentation at your next team meeting. This builds partnership among team members and nurtures development.
Let team members connect better with one another and in time you will find remarkable connections happening.
Brag: While bragging about yourself is indeed bad form, bragging about employees is more than just good.
Don’t hesitate to compliment or brag about an employee’s efforts or skills. It makes your team members feel more valued and appreciated, which in turn improves engagement.
Four-letter words to avoid
Certain four-letter words tend to create a negative emotional reaction, regardless of the speaker’s intent. You may not be able to eliminate these words altogether, but you can use them more sparingly and only when carefully considering your tone and emotion to ensure employees aren’t left feeling disengaged.
Hate: This four-letter word is insidious because of its indiscriminate use in daily life. Many people are injured from saying this word. But when the word “hate” is aimed at a person, particularly in a professional space, its corrosiveness comes roaring back. To say something like “I hate Bill" can be deeply damaging to morale.
Can’t: This word has the power to crush morale and prevent innovation. The word “can’t” over time allows toxic work attitudes to fester and changes your organization into a dark and desolate place.
Just: The word “just” has become problematic when used in the context of people. For example, think of how dismissive statements like these come across: “Jane is just our assistant” and “All you need is to just figure it out.”
In these contexts, “just” is demeaning and diminishes the role of others.
Takeaway: For leaders, words are instruments of influence — they have the power to cajole, uplift and unite employees as well as the power to tear down goodwill. Being mindful of the four-letter words you use as a leader should ultimately remind employees that they matter and that they're not alone, helping you forge a deep connection with your team.