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Leadership Language: Why Your Word Choices Matter

Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon
Updated Aug 03, 2022

Here's why the language you use as a leader matters. Learn some tips for better communication.

  • In communications with your employees, the right language can be the difference between a happy, high-functioning workplace and a negative environment with high turnover.
  • Frame performance conversations to focus on the employee and their career goals.
  • If you want to improve your communication skills, start by improving your listening skills.
  • This article is for business owners and managers who want to improve morale in their company and mentor highly effective teams.

Common wisdom about leadership often favors leading by example, so you might not think too much about how your team interprets what you say. But the truth is, your words and phrases enormously impact 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.”

How you speak to your team – whether making a statement or responding to a question – impacts them. Effective communication is essential for success, allowing you and your team to establish trust and create better long-term outcomes. Your leadership development goals should include learning to use your words carefully, eliminating jargon to avoid confusion, and focusing on the end goals when communicating.

Areas where language matters

There are several critical areas where the language you use as a leader affects morale, operations and even employee retention:

  • Performance management
  • Hiring and onboarding
  • Disciplining employees
  • Motivational leadership

Performance management

The way you discuss an employee’s performance and engagement is critical, according to Vip Sandhir, founder and CEO of employee engagement platform HighGround. These discussions can impact the way your employee views the company, your leadership, and their role on your team. Your direct communication affects them, and so do your reactions or responses to their questions or concerns.

“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 communication style] can trigger a threat response.”

If, for example, you start a performance discussion by telling an employee they are a 3 or 4 out of 5 – or by threatening the employee’s status at the company – they will perceive it as unfair and judgmental, Sandhir said. The conversation will then head in a hostile or defensive direction.

TipTip: Frame performance discussions to focus on the employee and their career goals to show that you value working together and want to help them.

Hiring and onboarding

Managers often see hiring and onboarding as simple processes to bring new employees into the company and set them up with their team. However, these processes are also an excellent opportunity to show new hires what to expect from you as their leader, based on how you communicate their role, your expectations for employees, company values and who their team members will be.

Onboarding is a pivotal time to ensure employees feel welcomed into the company and receive foundational knowledge. When speaking to a new employee during a thoughtful onboarding process, understand that they don’t know everything yet, and explain any concepts or vernacular they may need to use later. Share the company’s values and commitment to inclusivity, and let them know you value their feedback by giving them space to communicate with you directly.

Did you know?Did you know? The consequences of poor onboarding include lower productivity, greater inefficiency and higher employee turnover.

Disciplining employees

Effective leaders must be clear from the start about company policies, including disciplinary policies, so employees understand what they can or can’t do – and what consequences will occur if they break the rules.

When an employee violates a policy, talk to them about what the policy states. Explain why their behavior or action wasn’t acceptable and can’t continue to happen.

However, remember that the way you speak to them about their violation is critical and must convey that you care about them as a person and want them to succeed. To do this, offer them a chance to talk about what happened in their own words and listen as they explain their side of the story.

TipTip: A comprehensive employee handbook is an excellent tool for sharing company policies and keeping everyone on the same page.

Motivational leadership

Every employee is different and may respond best to a specific type of motivational language. Stacey Philpot, head of succession and leadership development practice at Deloitte, said it’s essential to plan your words and phrases to connect with your employees meaningfully.

“The most impactful leaders are the ones who think about how they will energize their people,” she 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 related to your company’s core values could be 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,'” he said.

But there’s no single magic phrase that will continuously inspire your team to achieve its best; motivational leadership comes from an authentic emotional connection with your team, explained James Rohrbach, president and chairman of language school Fluent City.

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

To that end, it helps 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,” he 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.”

TipTip: Ways to prevent workplace alienation include transparent communication, an open-door policy and employee recognition programs.

Learning the language of leadership

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 of corporate learning at Harvard Business Publishing.

“We’re connected by so many shared human experiences that enable us to live, grow and interact in universal ways,” he 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, remember that cultural differences might affect the way others interpret your words. Richard Stevenson, head of corporate communications at cloud-based e-commerce platform ePages, noted that a clear, universal sense of mission is essential, but international staffers may expect and value differing communication styles.

“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 experiments 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.

“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.”

Sean Peek contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Image Credit:

Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock

Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon has written hundreds of B2B-focused articles on topics such as marketing, business technology, leadership, and HR/organizational management. In addition to covering small business trends and software reviews, Nicole runs a digital marketing agency, where she and her team create high-quality content for a wide range of B2B and B2C brands.