As leaders, our language defines us. Literally.
In a new report, the behavioral analytics platform Mattersight analyzed at least 10 minutes of public speaking engagements from well-known leaders. They then used the linguistic-based Process Communication Model — or PCM — to determine the personalities of these successful leaders.
While PCM identifies six different personalities, the most popular is the connector. According to the report, 30 percent of people, including former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, naturally focus on relationships between people.
“Connectors are hardwired to view the world through a lens of feelings, emotional states, and people,” chief people officer of Mattersight, Melissa Moore, said.
Some of the most common words and phrases these leaders use are ‘the best,’ ‘feeling,’ and ‘very kind.’ They’re focused on the human side of the workforce — a trend that’s becoming more popular in leadership.
In communication, however, what we don’t say can be just as important as what we do say. For leaders trying to be more people-focused, there are some words and phrases to avoid:
‘I need that report.’ ‘I expected more.’ ‘I think this is our best option.’
When a leader constantly uses ‘I,’ they direct the focus and need on them. As Stacey Hanke, the author of Influence Redefined, points out, this creates the sense that the leader is having a conversation with him or herself, not the team.
People-focused leaders are inclusive. Use words like ‘we’ and ‘the team’ to show everyone that they’re an important part of the organization. Instead of feeling like they’re working to make you happy, they’ll see they’re contributing to the company and its goals.
As Yoda once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” The word is noncommittal and implies doubt. When a leader says, ‘Try to get me that report by Friday,’ they are showing a lack of confidence in the employee’s abilities. This can make people feel unappreciated.
As Art Barter, the CEO of training resource center Servant Leadership Institute, explained, the word is just as bad when a leader uses it to refer to their own actions.
“Try is a word that provides an excuse for leaders not to do what they said they would do,” he said.
When a leader says, ‘I’ll try to fit you into my schedule,’ they’re already signaling that it won’t happen. While this can assuage a leader’s guilt, it shows employees that they aren’t valued.
A better option is ‘let’s.’ Employees at my company, Come Recommended, work remotely. Especially in this type of environment, it’s crucial I communicate with my team in absolutes to show them they’re valued. For example, when an employee asks to speak with me, I let them know where I’m at in my day and acknowledge their time by saying, “Let’s find a time this afternoon.”
This creates a sense of collaboration. No matter what happens, even if we can’t chat until the next day, both my employee and I were part of the process.
3. ‘You always’ or ‘You never’
Speaking in absolutes pigeonholes employees. It ignores their complexity as humans. And often, it puts people on the defensive.
“Even though people sometimes repeat a behavior I would prefer to avoid, I absolutely know that language will not help,” said Mike Wagner, the CEO of the small freight shipping company Target Freight Management.
When used positively, these phrases are still damaging. ‘You always do great work’ might seem like a compliment, but it puts unnecessary pressure on employees. They become worried that if they make a mistake, they’ll no longer be seen as valuable.
Instead, acknowledge mistakes and success within the context of that moment. Give employees feedback about what they did in a specific situation. This will show them you’re referring to their actions, not your view of them as a complete person.
4. ‘Everything is perfect.’
Employees aren’t oblivious. They know when there’s trouble in the company. So when a leader cheerfully tells them ‘everything is perfect,’ they know it’s a lie.
Molly Muir is now the chief of staff at a video monitoring company, Arcules. But in a previous role, she had a leader who would sugarcoat conversations.
“It made you wonder what the real story was and why the leader was not willing to be transparent and truthful with the team,” she said.
While leaders shouldn’t tell employees everything, they still need to be honest — even when the news is negative. If we lose a client or an employee is let go, my team knows exactly what happened and they’re even part of creating steps to improve our processes.
I trust that my team is not only strong enough to handle tough situations, but also can work alongside me to problem-solve and find solutions.