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Lead Your Team Leadership

Leadership Language: Why Your Word Choices Matter

Leadership Language: Why Your Word Choices Matter
Credit: Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock

Common wisdom about leadership often favors "leading by example," so you might not think too much about the way your team interprets what you say. But the truth is, the words and phrases you use can have a very real impact on your team's morale and productivity.

"Words are important," said Isaac Oates, CEO of Justworks, an HR, benefits and payroll platform. "It's through our words that we communicate our intentions. They are the main tools that we have for sharing our vision with our teams."

This is especially true when you're discussing an employee's performance and engagement, said Vip Sandhir, founder and CEO of employee engagement platform HighGround. Leaders' conversations about performance can have the biggest impression on their team members.

"Performance management is going through a renaissance," Sandhir told Business News Daily. "The importance of that conversation and how it's done [is changing]. It was typically one-sided, judging individuals based on numbers. But neuroscience research on how the brain reacts to conversations shows that [this type of conversation] can trigger a threat response."

If, for example, you start a performance discussion by telling them they are a 3 or 4 out of 5, or threatening the employee's status at the company, that person will perceive it as unfair and judgmental, Sandhir said. The conversation will then be steered in that direction, he added. Instead, you should frame these conversations to focus on the employee and his or her career goals, to show that you want to work together to help that person improve, Sandhir said. [See Related Story: Common Communication Failures (And How to Fix Them)]

Every employee is different and therefore will respond best to different types of motivational language. Stacey Philpot, a principal at Deloitte Consulting, said it's important to plan your words and phrases to ensure that you connect with your employees in a meaningful way.

"The most impactful leaders are the ones who think about how they will energize their people," Philpot said. "They know what makes their people feel confident and likewise what drains their energy. Rather than talking about plans or tactical objectives, they are able to link their employees' current circumstances with some kind of opportunity or outcome that they will care about."

Oates, who has a military background, noted that straightforward, action-oriented phrases that relate to your company's core values can be very motivational if you have a strong company culture.

"Some of our core company values are 'grit' and 'simplicity,' [so] I use phrases without a lot of fluff to motivate team members — phrases like, 'Let's do this!', 'Keep doing what you're doing' and 'We are laser-focused on XYZ,'" Oates said.

But there's no single "magic phrase" that will always inspire your team to achieve its best; motivational leadership comes from an authentic emotional connection with your team, said James Rohrbach, CEO of language school Fluent City.

"Look your colleagues in the eye [and] ask them how they are," Rohrbach said. "Really listen to the answers, and tell them regularly what you are grateful for in their work and why."

To this end, it's helpful to include employees in the ongoing conversation about the company's mission, and how their work aligns with it, said Shaun Ritchie, CEO of EventBoard, a provider of meeting tools and workforce analytics.

"Check in on progress through a regularly scheduled, preferably face-to-face meeting, to align on progress and build trust," Ritchie said. "If you're doing that at appropriate intervals, you'll have the confidence that the right things are being worked on, that issues are addressed before they become problems, [that] your team is held accountable and that you have the information you need to make decisions. Using encouraging but knowledgeable language helps to implement objectives and key results at all levels in our organization."

"I like to let everyone know that their work is important and I appreciate the effort they put into all assignments, no matter how small," added Kim Paone, senior vice president of Highwire Public Relations. "I think encouraging people to take on projects they have an interest in makes them work harder and, overall, produces better results."

Even if you manage a global team with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, it's still important to master the "language of leadership," said Ray Carvey, executive vice president at Harvard Business Publishing.

"We're connected by so many shared human experiences that enable us to live, grow and interact in universal ways," Carvey said. "Whatever our industry, whatever our country [or] language, we all have to deal with the same business basics in order to run our companies successfully. It's these common business situations and concerns that unite and move us forward."

Despite these commonalities, it is still important to remember cultural differences that might impact the way your words are interpreted. Richard Stevenson, head of corporate communications at cloud-based ecommerce platform ePages.com, noted that having a clear, universal sense of mission is essential, but international staffers may expect and value differing styles of communication.

"I find that American and British talent thrive on very open and personalized feedback and an emphasis on development needs, while central European staff tend to relax more when there's a structure to feedback, numeric inputs and reference to agreed goals and KPIs," Stevenson told Business News Daily. "Be prepared to wear different hats day-to-day and do experiment in order to bring out the best in each of them."

Philpot reminded leaders that motivating employees takes dedication and time. A one-off message of encouragement or the occasional "pat on the back" won't be enough; you need to keep working at it and refining your message, she said.

"It can be like tossing a balloon into the air — with time, it is bound to descend," Philpot said. "Sincerity, repetition and consistency of communication over time is what really makes the difference."

Nicole Fallon Taylor
Nicole Fallon Taylor

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the managing editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.