The 4 most important words in leadership development

Opinions expressed by Contractor the contributors are their own.

If you’re an entrepreneur who’s used to working on your own, you might not think much about the impact your words have on people. But if your entrepreneurship has become a full-fledged business with employees, managers and coffee makers, you may need to rethink your attitude.

Words matter. Using just a single ill-advised word here or an abhorrent word there can make the difference between a pleasant, productive discussion and a negative exchange that can have lasting consequences.

This is especially true in business leadership situations, where a single word can make or break an interaction between a leader and an employee or team member. Words matter so much because they can determine whether your leadership is effective or not. At the very least, the wrong words can reduce your level of leadership effectiveness when you work so diligently to optimize it.

The truth is that effective leadership is about achieving results through relationships. Senior managers are in a position to have to get the bulk of the work done through others. Otherwise, they don’t have time to work on visions and strategic goals – i.e. look over the horizon for what is needed in the longer term to achieve the long-term vision. With this in mind, words become the master sail, guiding conversations to take the best path to performance.

Evaluating the impact of every word that can be used in a manager-employee interaction is a bit of a Herculean task. That said, four specific words deserve the most significant level of attention and scrutiny based on their ability to derail a business discussion or elevate it.

Related: Inspirational leaders know how to choose their words carefully

In my opinion, two of the words should be on the “no-fly” list; that is, they should never be used in any conversation between manager and employee or even between managers. They will always produce the opposite effect that was intended. Unfortunately, many managers still employ them regularly, without truly understanding the potential harm they can cause.

The other two words are “antidotes” to the first two entries. When used as a substitute for the two harmful words, they can change the entire direction of a discussion while generating the positive effect the conversation was intended to have.

The culprits: “Why” and “But”.

The Saviors: “What” and “And.”

With such an impressive structure, you may be disappointed by how unpretentious and harmless the four words seem. But I can assure you that their ability to inspire achievement or dampen enthusiasm is not to be underestimated.

The first entry, “why,” is a terrible word to use when you’re involved in performance management—even if you want to understand why your team member performed a task a certain way or are curious as to why one of your C- peers in the suite followed a specific course of action. It doesn’t matter how neutrally or benignly you use the word; you can use the best possible tone and put flower bouquets around it. When it enters our heads, the concept of “why” immediately puts us on the defensive. Our brain interprets it as a form of judgement. It makes us think, “I’ve done something wrong; now I have to defend or explain myself.”

(By the way, if you want to see exactly how the word “why” creates such a defensive attitude, try it on your spouse or partner. As you already know, it creates a high degree of defensiveness. The reaction is visceral; we are more likely to stopping a moving freight train than preventing this reaction.)

So how do we short-circuit the side effect generated by the word “why”? We simply bring in our four-letter superhero, “what.” Replace the word “what” with “why” and the whole dynamic of the discussion changes. Immediately, when the “what” enters the picture, it asks, in an objective, unpretentious way, to tell your activity or action; there is no judgment and consequently no defensiveness. You are only asking for information without an agenda. It conveys the message that you are simply trying to understand. Examples are:

  • What made you do (the task or action)?
  • What was the rationale for (the task or action)?
  • What was the thought process behind (the task or action)?

The word “but” can be even worse than “why”. “But” is like “why” on steroids. “But” has the power to negate any statement immediately before it, regardless of how positive it was.

For example, let’s say you say to a team member, “Karen, you did an amazing job on that project, but I would have liked to have seen it a little earlier.” “But” changes the entire tone and tenor of the statement. What started as a compliment quickly turned into a perceived disparagement of the person’s performance – regardless of how minor the transgression was.

Think about it: In Karen’s example, you’re trying to acknowledge something that was done well, then piggyback on that positive statement with something you’d like to see done next – taking a task done efficiently and offering a way to further improve performance . However, there is no piggybacking with “but.” It has the opposite effect; it wipes out the first part of the statement.

Simply put, the word “but” has no upside.

You’ve probably already figured it out: the word “and” provides an excellent way to avoid the “but” dilemma. So now you can say, “Karen, I love what you did with that project, and next time I’d like to see it sooner.” It allows the first phrase to land and the person to actually hear it. It is also a neurolinguistic signal that you want the person to take this next step, and here is exactly the next step.

If you want to make this approach even more successful, use “and” in a different way: “Karen, you did an amazing job on that project. And how about doing it earlier next time?” Now you have asked a question – a question about what the person is thinking. So while the first use of the word “and” is acceptable, the second is an attempt to get “buy-in” from the team member.

As a bonus, you have also let your employee let you know if an earlier delivery time is possible. At first, few team members will say no; they’ll say, “Sure, I’ll do it.” The second example allows a team member to say yes while providing an opportunity to express any concerns about potential problems in fulfilling the request – which can then be followed up by asking the team member for suggestions on how to achieve the earlier project delivery.

Related: The 3 Power Words All Entrepreneurs Need to Remember

The obvious question is how hard is it to remove “why” and “but” from your vocabulary – two words you’ve probably been using for a while – and replace them with more empowerment-centric options? If you follow a systematic three-step approach and work on it daily, you can change the pattern faster than you might think.

The three steps in the approach are:

  1. Become aware of the pattern: You notice it mentally every time you say one of the two words. You can tell yourself, “I’m using the word, and I’m now aware of it.”
  2. Cancel it: When you realize you are running this pattern, stop it the second you start. You have to catch yourself as early as possible and put on the brakes. You can even ask team members to look for the pattern – they’ll probably be glad you asked them to help you improve yourself.
  3. Run the new pattern: You say “what” instead of “why.” You say “and” instead of “but”. Every time you do that, it starts to form a new neural pathway that will stick relatively quickly.

Related: Words Matter: How Small Changes in Language Can Impact Women’s Advancement in the Workplace

There is a wealth of data showing that it takes approximately 66 days to change a habit and much less time to change a behavior pattern. This is because habits live in our conscious mind; behavioral patterns form and live in our unconscious mind, the latter processing infinitely more volume and speed than the former. It’s a minor change that will make a big difference in your leadership effectiveness and will happen sooner than you could imagine.

Words are important for many reasons, not least how they land in our brains from a neurolinguistic perspective. Certain words we use in a business leadership role can either get team members on the corporate journey or make them look for another journey. To potentially make such a huge impact with so few words – that’s a journey worth taking yourself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *