The Words We Use

Leadership Blog  |  5 minute read

Bella Blazewicz

Written by Bella Blazewicz

The Words We Use

In a very real sense, leadership is language. Effective leaders create a potential future and successfully enrol individuals to commit to that vision. As writer, historian and intellectual Yuval Noah Harari states in his bestseller Sapiens “All other animals use their communication system to describe reality. We use our communication system to create new realities.” So, careful choice of words and phrases should be an essential aspect of any leader’s deliberation and preparation. Sadly, too often ‘corporate communications’ become loaded with meaningless terminology, jargon and cliched buzzwords that have little resonance for their audience. Instead of action-orientated inspiration as intended, communications can become demotivating and even counter-productive. Taking time to tune into what audiences need to hear as well as selecting specific words for real impact can transform peoples’ ability to deliver breakthrough change.


Pressure to perform

Let’s take one commonly used word as an example. ‘Performance’ is a favourite word for leaders, change-managers and consultants. We talk about high-performance teams, raising performance levels or out-performing competition. It’s all intended to stimulate and empower teams and individuals to be better. But often what’s actually transmitted is pressure; a requirement to do more, go faster. Rather than empowering or encouraging, the word itself has the effect of closing down and restricting possibility. Everything must be streamlined for speed and delivery of immediate tasks. What might be the impact of replacing this with the words ‘dynamic’ or ‘vitality’? Words like vitality have more positive connotations – energy, health, wholeness. In addition, by choosing unexpected words, not normally found in the lexicon of corporate-speak, leaders can stimulate thinking and open conversations for possibility that might not have otherwise occurred.


Falling is natural, failure is not

Another over-used phrase popularised by Silicon Valley, is ‘freedom to fail’ or ‘failing fast’. Intended to free individuals from fear and so spur innovation it often has the opposite effect. No one likes to fail. It has a finality and permanence to it that leaves most people cold. Like Simon Sinek, I prefer ‘fall’ rather than ‘fail’. The former is entirely natural, and commonplace. We often fall – especially when we are trying new things. But we get up and we carry on. Our minds naturally recall images of learning by doing – whether it’s riding a bike, skiing or skateboarding. Positive associations of progress, growth and increasing ability replace the dark imagery of failure.


Tear-up the corporate dictionary

Making a conscious effort to tear-up the ‘C-level dictionary’ of terms and instead engage with the real-world words used and understood by audiences will dramatically improve the clarity and impact of what you say. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant proportion of CEO-speak is not understood by the people it is designed to influence. It is often too abstract, focused on issues that seem remote and beyond the influence of team members. It can alienate instead of building shared experience. Too much attention is paid to what matters to the CEO and not enough to what makes a difference to the day-to-day team activity. A lot of leadership-speak has the effect of making people feel like cogs in a machine. The intent may be to energise and empower, but the impact is to constrict thinking, imagination and creativity by pressurising performance.

Our colleagues at The Leadership Circle, have coined the term ‘S-Level’, the street-level language of workers in teams. Individuals want to contribute and are full of ideas and enthusiasm but often feel they are not heard. The words used by leaders do not reflect the language they use; they feel excluded and less invested in the futures their leaders’ outline.


Leadership is storytelling

Only by closely listening-in to the voices of these people can leaders quickly identify these disconnects of language. It is not about ‘dumbing down’ or using simpler words, but about engaging in storytelling that has resonance with the concerns, motivations and values of those that you need to empower.

As Harari argues, humans use stories to make sense of and construct the reality around them. Using language that resonates, excites and surprises teams creates a virtuous cycle of engagement and co-creation. Words that speak to wholeness, which talk to individuals’ little voices and tap into their latent desire for inclusion and to contribute, will invite them in weaving your story and their story together. Using words that stimulate and reinforce alignment of values and potential futures invests all parties in a common story.   

Ultimately organisations are conversations. The constant winding and unwinding of narratives that engage and bind groups of people together to achieve common goals are the common threads of tribes, civilisations, nations and increasingly enterprises. Truly purpose-driven organisations exist and are defined solely by commitment to set of shared values. The organisation is the story it tells itself about how it will embody those values to create the potential future it desires. Articulating that story with words chosen precisely to invite and encourage people to do their best work to make that story real is the essence of leadership. So next time you communicate as a leader choose your words carefully. Establish dialogue using words that excite, inspire, and perhaps even surprise them.


Published 21/10/2021

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