The 4 most important words in leadership development

The 4 most important words in leadership development

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If you’re an entrepreneur used to working alone, you might not give much thought to the impact your words have on people. But if your entrepreneurship has turned into a full-fledged business with employees, managers, and coffee makers, you may need to rethink your position.

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Words matter. Using a single ill-advised word here or an off-putting word there can mean the difference between a pleasant and productive discussion and a negative exchange that can have lasting repercussions.

This is especially true in corporate leadership situations, where a single word can make or break an interaction between a leader and an employee or team member. Words matter so much because they can determine whether your leadership is effective or not. At a minimum, the wrong word can diminish your level of leadership effectiveness when you work so diligently to optimize it.

The truth is, effective leadership is about getting results through relationships. Senior managers are in a position where they have to have others do the heavy lifting. Otherwise, they don’t have time to work on the vision and strategic objectives, that is, to look over the horizon to what is needed in the longer term to achieve the long-term vision. With this in mind, words become the master sail, guiding conversations to take the best path to performance.

Assessing the impact of every word that can be used in an interaction between an executive and an employee is a bit of a herculean undertaking. That said, four specific words deserve the highest level of attention and scrutiny based on their ability to derail or elevate a business discussion.

Related: Inspirational Leaders Know How to Choose Their Words Carefully

In my opinion, two of the words should be on the “no-fly” list; that is, they should never be used in a conversation between an officer and an employee or even between officers. They will invariably produce the opposite effect that was intended. Unfortunately, many leaders still employ them regularly, without really understanding the potential damage they can cause.

The other two words are “antidotes” to the first two entries. When used as substitutes for the two harmful words, they can change the entire direction of a discussion while generating the positive impact the conversation was meant to have.

The culprits: “Why” and “But”.

Saviors: “What” and “And”.

With such an impressive accumulation, you might be disappointed at how unassuming and harmless the four words seem. But I can assure you that their power to inspire success or stifle enthusiasm should not be underestimated.

The first entry, “why”, is a terrible word to use when you’re involved in performance management – even if you want to understand why your team member performed a task in a certain way or if you are curious to know why one of your C-following peers followed a specific course of action. It doesn’t matter how neutrally or benevolently you use the word; you can use the best possible tone and put flower bouquets around. Once it enters our head, the term “why” immediately puts us on the defensive. Our brain interprets it as a form of judgment. This leads us to think, “I did something wrong, now I have to defend myself or explain myself.

(By the way, if you want to see precisely how the word “why” creates such a defensive posture, try it on your spouse or partner. As you already know, it creates a high degree of defensiveness. The reaction is visceral; we are more likely to stop a moving freight train than to prevent this reaction.)

So how do you short-circuit the unwanted reaction generated by the word “why”? We just bring our four letter superhero, “what”. Replace the word “what” with “why” and the whole dynamic of the discussion changes. Immediately, when “what” comes into play, it asks, in an objective and unpretentious way, to tell your activity or your action; there is no judgment and therefore no defensiveness. You are just asking for information without an agenda. It conveys the message that you are simply trying to understand. Examples are:

  • What led you to do (the task or action)?
  • What was the reasoning for (the task or action)?
  • What was the thought process behind (the task or action)?

The word “but” can be even worse than “why”. “But” is like “why” on steroids. “But” has the power to negate any statement made just before, no matter how positive.

For example, let’s say you say to a team member, “Karen, you did a fabulous job on this project, but I wish I had seen it a little sooner.” The “but” changes the whole tone and tenor of the statement. What started as a compliment quickly turned into a perceived disparagement of the person’s performance, regardless of the severity of the offense.

Think about it: in the example with Karen, you’re trying to acknowledge something that was done well, then piggyback on that positive statement with something you’d like to see done next time: take a task done efficiently and offer a way to further improve this performance. However, there is no overlap with “but”. This has the opposite effect; it erases the first part of the statement.

Simply put, the word “but” has no benefit.

You’ve probably figured it out by now: the word “and” is a great way to avoid the “but” dilemma. So now you might say, “Karen, I love what you’ve done with this project, and next time I’d like to see it sooner.” It allows the first sentence to land and the person to actually hear it. It’s also a neurolinguistic clue that you want the person to take that next step, and this is precisely the next step.

If you want to make this approach even more effective, use “and” in another way: “Karen, you did a fabulous job on this project. And how about executing it sooner next time?” Now you’ve asked a question – a question about what the person is thinking. So while the first use of the word “and” is fine, the second is an attempt to gain “buy-in” from the team member.

As a bonus, you have also allowed your employee to let you know if an earlier delivery time is possible. At first, few team members will say no; they’ll say, “Sure, I’ll do it.” The second example allows a team member to say yes while providing the opportunity to voice any concerns about potential issues with fulfilling the request – which can then be followed up by asking the team member for suggestions on how earlier project delivery can be achieved.

Related: The 3 Words of Power All Entrepreneurs Need to Memorize

The obvious question is how hard is it to eliminate “why” and “but” from your vocabulary – two words you’ve probably been using for some time – and replace them with more purpose-centric alternatives. empowerment? If you follow a systematic three-step approach and work at it daily, you can change the pattern faster than you think.

The three steps of the process are:

  1. Become aware of the boss: You make a mental note of it every time you say one of the two words. You may say to yourself, “I use the word, and I am now aware of it.
  2. Interrupt: When you realize you are running this pattern, you have to stop it the second you start. You have to catch up as soon as possible and brake. You could even tell team members to look up the model – they’ll probably be happy you asked them to help you improve.
  3. Run the new model: You say “what” instead of “why”. You say “and” instead of “but”. Every time you do this it starts to form a new neural pathway that will take root pretty quickly.

Related: Words Matter: How Small Changes in Language Can Impact Women’s Advancement in the Workplace

There is a lot of data showing that it takes about 66 days to change a habit and much less time to change a behavior. This is because habits live in our conscious mind; behavioral patterns form and live in our unconscious mind, the latter dealing with infinitely more volume and speed than the former. It’s a small change that will make a big difference in your leadership effectiveness and will happen faster than you might imagine.

Words are important for many reasons, not the least of which is how they land in our brains from a neurolinguistic perspective. Some words we use in a business leadership role can either engage team members in the business journey or cause them to seek a different journey. To potentially have such a huge impact with so few words – it’s a journey worth taking.

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