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Key Words for Leaders

Joanne G. Sujansky, Ph.D., CSP

Successful Leaders Put Language to Work
I've worked with many excellent leaders over the years and no two were exactly alike. Some had great technical knowledge while others had great vision. Some were charismatic and inspirational, while others were introspective and insightful. But, no matter what gifts they brought to the role of leader, they all had one thing in common: their primary tools of leadership were words.

Leaders use language to inform, inspire, and persuade. Whether through speeches, vision statements, or annual reports a leader has to find the right words to connect employees and managers with each other, as well as with other stakeholders.

And when we're trying to understand organizational culture, words are critical! The way people talk about their work, how they describe their customers, the job titles they use, and how they speak with co-workers all help to define the culture. But, sometimes you have to listen very carefully to catch a sense of the organization's culture. Slogans, posters, and marketing campaigns, which are highly visible in some organizations, may not reflect the true culture. It's what their leaders and employees say that really defines a winning culture.

Key Words Can Inspire Bottom Line Results
Language can be tricky, as Mark Twain observed. How often do we choose the wrong word, or use a term out of context, only to have it blow up in our faces? If you're a presidential candidate these days the answer to that question is 'often.' And if you're an organizational leader you have to be very sensitive to how your language impacts others. Do you use language that clarifies, motivates, and inspires? Or does your language tend to confuse, discourage, or demoralize?

Effective leaders use language that makes employees feel valued, encouraged, and respected. When communicating with individuals or groups, try to use language that reflects these needs ...

  • Words of Inclusion: Employees feel a greater sense of loyalty when you use terms like 'team' and 'partner' and talk about 'our' goals and customers. I also like companies that refer to employees using terms like 'associates,' 'colleagues' and 'teammates.' When you talk about 'subordinates' and 'workers' you tend to create an "us versus them" mentality.
  • Words of Empowerment: How do you empower you people? Do you express confidence in their abilities to get the job done ('I know you can do it' and 'you're the best person for the task') or you do undermine them with expressions of doubt ('I'll give you a chance' or 'nobody else wanted to do it')? Do you give employees 'deadlines' and 'due dates' or 'goals and 'targets?'
  • Words of Success: Thriving organizations have a vocabulary of success; they use words that help employees understand what needs to be accomplished. People in winning organizations tend to use terms like 'victory,' 'achievement,' 'result,' 'outcome,' 'performance' and 'payoff.' In struggling organizations you're more likely to hear people talking about 'coming up short,' 'botching a job,' 'dropping the ball' and similar phrases. The language of success is energizing while the language of failure is demoralizing.

Actions Speak as Loudly as Words
In these demanding times the best way leaders can ensure a dynamic, adaptable workplace is to encourage positive communication patterns. Whenever I visit an organization for the first time I like to wander around, listen, and observe the types of language being employed in speeches, memos, conversations, signs, and other communications. It usually doesn't take me long to tell whether the culture is energized and positive or struggling and negative.


Joanne G. Sujansky, Ph.D., is a Certified Speaking Professional and CEO and founder of Pittsburgh-based KEYGroup®. For 28 yeas, KEYGroup has worked with leaders to make their workplaces more productive and profitable.


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