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Updated Apr 08, 2024

Leadership Language: Why Your Word Choices Matter

The language you use matters when you’re a leader. Here’s how you can improve your vocabulary to better motivate your team.

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Nicole Fallon, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Analyst
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Common wisdom about leadership often favors leading by example, so you might not think too much about how your team interprets what you say. However, your words enormously impact your team’s morale and productivity. Effective communication is essential for success. It allows you and your team to establish trust and create better long-term outcomes for your business. 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

“Words are important,” said Isaac Oates, founder of Justworks, an HR, benefits and payroll platform. “It’s through our words that we communicate our intentions.”

From hiring to performance management, disciplining employees to motivating them, the words you choose matter. Here’s a closer look at each of those situations and how the language you choose can make all the difference.

Performance management

The way you discuss an employee’s performance and engagement is critical, according to Vip Sandhir, founder 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 said. “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.

Frame performance discussions to focus on the employee and their career goals to show 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. Think about that while 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. 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. Clarity is always important, especially concerning disciplinary policies. You want employees to 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.

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.

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, an executive development consultant, 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.

To that end, it helps to include employees in the ongoing conversation about the company’s mission and how their work aligns with it. Involving them in the discussion can help you encourage them to buy into the mission, ensuring you’re on the same page and improving your ability to communicate.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Ways to prevent workplace alienation include transparent communication, an open-door policy and employee recognition programs.

How to develop effective leadership language

These tips can help you become a more effective communicator as a leader. Remember, communication is a skill and it takes practice, so try some of these out in your workplace and see how you improve over time.

Use words that resonate with your employees

Instead of relying on buzzwords that annoy employees, use vocabulary they can relate to. You can determine which words are most effective and relevant to your team simply by listening to how they speak and the words they use. The best way to do this is by having direct conversations with them. Feel empowered to get out of your office and engage with everyone. The more you speak your team’s language, literally, the more effective your communication will become. 

Be clear and direct

Many times, poor communication stems from misunderstanding. To avoid this, be clear and direct when discussing things with your employees. For example, if you want to achieve a goal, be clear about what success looks like, the time frame in which you expect to complete the goal, and the individual steps it will take to reach it. Similarly, when having tough conversations with employees around things like performance issues, it’s important to say what you mean in simple, direct statements. Don’t beat around the bush. Your employees will have a clearer understanding of your expectations and respect you more for your transparency and clarity. 

Ask questions

Asking questions is one of the most important things leaders can do to gain a better understanding of what it’s like for their team in the day to day. While many leaders feel like they need to have all the answers, it’s the leaders who ask a lot of questions who will best know their team and their workplace. When asking questions, ask them one at a time and allow your employees space to answer. To improve the level of information you gather this way, establish a culture of open communication in which employees aren’t afraid to speak up, even if what they have to share isn’t the best news.

Survey your team

When all else fails, it never hurts to periodically check in with your team and find out how they’re responding to your communication style. Anonymous employee surveys can be a good way to find out what you’re doing well and where you can improve. Take the feedback to heart and try to adjust your communication style as your employees’ responses indicate. By hearing what they have to say and adjusting your actions accordingly, you can also build a stronger rapport and sense of trust with your team.

Language matters in leadership

When you’re speaking with your team, the words and phrases you choose matter. How you engage with them is critical too. If you want to gain the respect of your employees and drive results in your business, examine your communication style and ask yourself what you can improve upon. After all, communication skills take practice like anything else, and in a short time you could be helping your team succeed in a brand new way.

Sean Peek contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

author image
Nicole Fallon, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Analyst
Nicole Fallon is a small business owner with nearly a decade of experience overseeing day-to-day business operations. She and her co-founder self-funded their company and now lead a team of employees across multiple disciplines. Fallon's first-hand experience as an entrepreneur running a staffed business has given her unique insight into startup culture, budgeting, employer-employee relationships, sales and marketing, and project management. Fallon's business expertise is evident in her work with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where she analyzes small business trends. Her writing has been published in Forbes, Entrepreneur, and Newsweek, and she enjoys collaborating with B2B and SaaS companies.
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