Language is a powerful tool, and one that’s often taken for granted. As leaders, there are often many ears trained in our direction, and poor use of language can have repercussions ranging from missed deadlines to team members feeling lost and untrusted by their leader. Articulating your objectives and directions clearly and concisely is key to your success as a leader, and part of that process is avoiding phrases that are unclear, or open to misinterpretation.
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Here are a few phrases that are open to misinterpretation and should be avoided.
The passive-aggressive post-mortem
What you said: Interesting … That’s not the way I would have done it.
What they heard: You did it completely wrong, and now I’m going to tell you how I want the job redone.
How to say it differently: If the task wasn’t completed to your specifications, start by taking some of the responsibility: “This is a bit different than what I was expecting, and I didn’t do a very good job of explaining what I was looking for.” Then ask your team member to walk you through their thinking. Perhaps their line of reasoning is more effective than what you were thinking, or has beneficial elements. At the end of the conversation, ask them to verbally “play back” the approach so you can ensure it’s what you’re expecting.
I trust you (but I really don’t)
What you said: I trust your judgment (for the third time in a 24-hour period).
What they heard: Repeatedly telling someone you “trust their judgment” quickly makes them think you absolutely do not trust their judgment, just as someone who routinely says “to be honest” immediately raises hackles that their default operating procedure is not to be honest.
How to say it differently: If you really don’t trust that person’s judgment, say something like “I’m not sure I fully understand the approach you’re taking. Do you have some time to walk me through it?” or cut right to the chase and say “I don’t think this is the right course of action. Let’s talk through how we adjust.” If you’re repeatedly telling someone you “trust their judgment” the only person you’re trying to convince is yourself, and there are some deeper problems that bear investigation and resolution.
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The royal “we” really means “you”
What you said: We should …
What they heard: You need to do something while I look over your shoulder and critique.
How to say it differently: As a leader, it’s OK to delegate tasks and not artificially imply you’re going to do anything other than review the outcome and provide guidance. The royal we quickly becomes disingenuous and makes you appear aloof as a leader. If you’re not going to actively engage in a task, avoid the royal we and simply ask the person you expect to complete the task to take ownership and clearly articulate how and when you want to be engaged.
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So many emails …
What you said: Sorry I missed your email … I have like 38,546 unread emails and you know how that is …
What they heard: Communication among the team is not something that requires serious thought or attention.
How to say it differently: We set the example as leaders, through our actions more so than our words, and making light of unread communications or ignored requests tells your team it is OK to do the same. If you miss a communication, a simple apology and acceptance of blame is appropriate: “I’m really sorry I missed that email. It’s been a crazy week, but that’s no excuse. I hate to do this, but could you forward it to me with a high priority so it’s at the top of my queue, and I’ll look at it immediately?”
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Everything is the most important!
What you said: If you could make this a priority … (for the sixth time that hour).
What they heard: This is yet another useless task to be devoutly ignored.
How to say it differently: A key element to our job as leaders is helping our team members prioritize tasks that may often be in conflict, and may require frequent re-prioritizing. If we suggest that every task is a top priority then nothing is. When assigning something new, ask what the team member has on their plate, and help them work though where the new task fits in that list. If something needs to drop in priority, help them make the call rather than leaving the team member to struggle through that decision themselves.
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If you’re thoughtful, clear, concise, and careful about how your statements will be interpreted, you’re well on your way to using language as a powerful tool to drive results on your team. It costs nothing, and requires little more than a few seconds of consideration, but can produce powerful results and increase your effectiveness as a leader.