As leaders, we have the opportunity to begin again each new day as we journey with others and think about the power of our influence. Our influence is born from our daily choices and interactions with others, which include the words we choose to speak.
You may remember the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Now that we are well on our journey in life, we know that this old playground saying is not true. Words do hurt. Words spoken and written in the workplace can hurt. The words we choose can lift up or tear down, they can inspire or they can paralyze, they can connect or they can disengage. Words create impressions and images. Words influence how we think about ourselves and others. Our words reflect our character and as a leader, there is undoubtedly a powerful connection between the words we use and the results we get.
Let’s give it a try:
Would you rather hear your boss describe you as an individual who communicates with passion or someone who is abrasive? Would you rather have your boss describe you as someone who ignores detail or someone who does not gravitate toward the detail first? I am not suggesting we sugar coat our words or not describe the impact of patterns of behavior on people and the organization. I am recommending that we choose our words carefully. Words can instill enthusiasm to grow or they can kill the spirit. Both the oral word and the written word can be weapons of mass destruction, or they can be life-giving nourishment, helping individuals to grow into a better version of who they are.
As leaders in the workplace, we are constantly communicating via e-mail, in one-on-one conversations, in meetings, and yes, once a year during the annual review process. Let’s camp on the annual review process since this process deals with both the oral word and the written word. I have reviewed many performance appraisals over the past 27 years and have also been the recipient of performance reviews over the years so I, too, know the power of words. In an attempt to help leaders lead, I have made countless suggestions on how to re-word performance appraisals that will not minimize or water down the message, but provide credibility to the messenger and motivation to the receiver.
I believe that being mindful and practicing care as we go about speaking and writing takes thoughtful consideration and time. It also takes time to understand those you are leading. Words mean different things to different people. The dialogue and the document continue to cause anxiety for people. This is one of many reasons that people at all levels in the organization dread the annual performance review. Leaders may have good intentions, but so many times, other priorities prevail, or perhaps, some managers do not realize the power of words written in an annual review. This is not just my personal take on performance reviews. A survey by the Society for Human Resources Management found that more than 90 percent of appraisal systems are not successful. Hundreds of other studies and surveys also support the gross inadequacies of the performance appraisal process, not because of the forms and, perhaps, the written word – it is because of the ineffective dialogue that can occur during the appraisal.
I have a heart for leaders – as I have said before, leadership is a high calling and a tall order. However, if you have been called to lead, then you need followers. Author John Maxwell says “…if you are a leader with no followers, then you are someone who is simply taking a walk.” That can be a lonely and frustrating journey. I have found that leaders, who are mindful of their words, are more likely to have people follow them because they want to – not because they have to. Having people follow you because they know that you have taken the time and care to choose your words can be a leadership journey that is rewarding and filled with great purpose.
As you turn the page over to a new year, may you reflect and begin again. Try the Leadership Reflection and take the Leadership Action:
Be mindful of the words you choose. Complete a heart check-up. As the ancient and timeless saying goes: “Out of the heart, the mouth speaks.” What are you thinking and feeling as you go about speaking (and writing) with those you lead or those at home? Are you angry, hurt, defensive, grateful, humble, proud, satisfied, confident, etc.? Getting clear on where you are with those you lead and interact with will help your conversations with people go “north” verses “south,” so to speak.
Take an inventory of the words you are using over the next week. Are they life-giving? Do they calm? Do they connect? Do they inspire? Do they motivate? Do they lift up? Do they facilitate change? Do they speak the truth with good will? Choose words that influence…for good.
Are you a leader who is mindful of his or her words? Take a look behind you. Is anyone following? Perhaps the answer is in the rear-view mirror.