7 Reasons to Watch What You Say
A leader's words make a bigger impact than you may think
THE CEO OF MillerKnoll, a furniture company, recently set off a furor among her employees during a company Zoom meeting (recounted in a Wall Street Journal article, April 22-23, 2023). Responding to some employee unhappiness regarding bonuses, Andi Owen said,
“You can visit Pity City, but you can’t live there. So, people, leave Pity City.”
Then she mouthed the word, “Boom.” That news exploded on social media, resulting in much embarrassment and many apologies. But the damage was done, and that kind is not repaired easily.
This illustrates the problems that can result from unwise speech, and not only in a virtual setting.
Communicating is too tricky to be done thoughtlessly, especially by leaders.
If you are person with influence or power over others, here are seven reasons to carefully watch your words.
1. Your words weigh more
People are prone to insecurity and anxiety, especially about their jobs. Employees continually have a finger in the wind, checking on the status and direction of their positions and companies. So in any typical company, employees will discuss how things are going.
Imagine a couple of them in the break room talking when one goes off: “This place is falling apart! I think our company’s going down, and we’ll all lose our jobs!” Typically, the reality isn’t that bad, and a coworker talks them off the ledge.
But imagine if were the CEO of the company who goes off: “This place is falling apart! I think our company’s going down, and we’ll all lose our jobs!” What kind of impact do you think that would have? You know the answer. Panic and anxiety would surge through the whole company like an electric
current — even though in the two examples the words said were exactly the same.
Why? Because the words of leaders “weigh” more than the words of others. This is one of the most important lessons for any aspiring leader. You don’t have the privilege of popping off with whatever crosses your mind. If you are a leader, you actually have less right to say what you think, because what you say creates waves.
That’s not a bad thing. The weight of your words gives you one of the greatest powers of leadership, the ability to define reality.
In fact, one of the worst things that can happen to aspiring leaders is to lose their influence, which usually happens because they have abused their verbal power. For a while, people will jump when the leader says to, but after a long series of repeated verbal injuries, they will become numb. Once people have tuned out your communication as mere noise, you are done as a leader. So cultivate this power and use it carefully.
From this master principle flow the following six consequences.
2. Your suggestions become orders
You’ve probably seen it happen in a group or committee discussion. Several people go around the table giving tentative opinions, then the highest ranking person speaks. It may be that he or she simply intends to make a suggestion, but at that moment the conversation stops. Authority has spoken. The matter is decided. When you are a leader, your suggestions become orders.
If you are a discerning leader, being aware of this dynamic will lead you to become very careful and self-disciplined in group discussions. If you genuinely want to hear what people think and have a meaningful conversation, then you must fight the urge to give opinions prematurely, because that’s when people shut up and comply.
3. Your speculations become pronouncements
It’s hazardous for leaders and managers to think out loud in the presence of others. While it’s part of the responsibility for managers to consider the past, present, and projected future of an employee, talking in speculative terms about whether she or he “is going to make it” gets written in stone in others’ minds. That impression becomes extremely hard for the most dedicated employee to change, no matter how diligent his performance.
It happens all the time in baseball. A young player gets labeled as a “utility player,” someone without sufficient talent to earn a fulltime position, and he can’t shake that label even if he bats over .300 for a full season. I’ve seen it often in business. An employee is labeled “not going to make it,” and that label colors others’ evaluations of her actual performance, regardless of reality. It’s not fair to the person, and it costs the company much in terms of lost potential.
4. Your possibilities become promises
The parents among us have all learned this the hard way. You said something like, “Maybe this Saturday, if I can get free, we can go to Chuck E. Cheese’s.” Saturday comes and you have lots of things to do. The kids ask, “When are we going to Chuck E. Cheese’s?”
“I’m sorry, I’m too busy today,” you reply. If you have ever had small children, you know exactly what’s coming next:
“But you promised!”
No, you didn’t promise, but you made the fundamental mistake of verbalizing a possibility ─ a highly desirable possibility to your children — and that possibility instantly became a promise in their minds. The words “maybe” and “if I can get free” did not register at all.
I’ve seen many organizational leaders make the same mistake (I’m sorry to say I’ve done it myself) in musing on possible promotions in an employee’s future, something like: “You know, maybe one day after I’m gone, you’ll be running this place …” or “One of these days you’ll probably be a supervisor …”
Bad idea. Later it dawns on you that this employee who looked so good at one time is actually poorly suited for that managerial position. But she or he has it in his mind that “someday” it will be a given. Now you’re in a tough position, especially when you must pick a better qualified person over them. You’re seen as reneging on a promise.
5. Your doubts become fears
This is a recurring theme in Leading Insights. Attitudes in a leader are extremely contagious and pass down the ranks quickly. One my favorite sayings is, “A head cold in the captain becomes an epidemic in the crew.”
It is simply human to have doubts, discouragements, and fears, but wise leaders learn they must keep them under wraps in the presence of subordinates. What is simply a season of doubt in your mind will pass down the organization and become pessimism or outright fear in ranks. It’s best to find a safe place outside the company to share those doubts and fears, and get the support you need to keep functioning with confident optimism.
6. Your criticisms become blows
Due to the weight of their words, leaders’ compliments mean more and their criticisms sting more. Add to that the innate insecurities and sensitivities of people, and you have a mixture that gives leaders’ negative words a cutting and painful edge.
Keep this fundamental principle in mind: Compliment in public; criticize in private.
Yes, it is part of our job as leaders and managers to point out and work at improving the negative, but the words we choose don’t have to be hurtful. We don’t have to say, “That was a stupid thing to do!” If we are in the habit of using the weight of our words wisely, a look in the eye and a simple “This could have been done better” can make an unforgettable impact.
7. You have immense power to encourage or discourage
This final ramification is a summary of the previous six, and an important reminder. We who are leaders and managers have incredible powers of influence. There is never enough encouragement in the world, and we have the ability to inspire people through this powerful force … or we can break them down through discouragement.
What we say and how we say it will determine which it is. Li