Leaders, Choose Your Words Carefully

“I would like to take a moment and make something clear to everyone. I do not expect, nor do I want, any of you to miss or sacrifice important family obligations for work. . . In fact, I will go so far as to say that if I find out that you are working with me while missing important family responsibilities, it will disappoint me greatly.”

These excerpts are from a 2014 internal memo (recently gone viral) Vice President Joe Biden sent to his team members.

The language he chose is precise and particular. Biden warmed the heart by addressing the note to “My Wonderful Staff,” and signed off with a sincere “Thank you for all the hard work.” He stressed how important it is that his valued employees maintain a healthy work-life balance. And he owned this directive, by clearly stating how personally disappointed he will be to learn after the fact that an employee has missed a crucial family moment because of work.

He also included a very detailed list of what he considers “family obligations,” including birthdays, religious celebrations, and graduations. This information was so valuable to his team—since most of us, especially when we’re swamped, will “grade” family obligations on a sliding scale from “critical” to “OMG I simply can’t take a day of just for that!”

Why Language Matters 

We know that spending too much time at work (or working at home) can lead to unhealthy, unproductive teams. But do we understand the impact of language? Poor choices of words, especially coming from company leaders, can affect employee morale, productivity, and health.

Let’s take a look at a couple of scenarios, from the employee’s perspective, where poor word choices can have powerful effects:

Scenario #1: Heading into an important meeting you’ve spent weeks preparing for, your manager turns to you and says, “Let me do the talking. You can take notes.”

Result: You immediately feel demoralized. It’s clear your manager doesn’t fully trust you, and in turn, you begin to doubt yourself.

Scenario #2: Your boss is annoyed because there was a simple error in one of your monthly reports. Mistakes happen. But, your boss expects perfection. “Why can’t you be more like Tony?” he says, “He would never allow something like this to slip through the cracks.”

Result: Aside from feeling hurt by this overreaction, your boss has now turned the tables on poor Tony as well. You are envious of him and resent the implication that he’s better than you. Your boss has created team divisions, and you no longer work as well together.

Scenario #3: Work has been extremely stressful, and you’re having issues with a coworker. You talk to your manager about it, hoping for a resolution. Instead, he trots out the old line “You know, with the economy the way it is, you should feel lucky to have a job! Try harder to work it out on your own.”

Result: When a manager doesn’t offer help and reminds you that you should be grateful to have a job, it essentially tells you that you’re not worthy. Communications like this erode corporate loyalty and build resentment.

Turn the Negatives to Positives

Words can hurt. But leaders can use positive language to create an environment of trust, a place where employees feel safe and valued. Here are some tips to help you turn negatives intto positives:

Be attentive and respectful. Be present when an employee requests a one-on-one with you. Don’t check email or text. Actively listen to what they’re saying, and if you don’t agree with them, keep your emotions in check. Suggest a follow-up discussion and craft your response in a way that benefits you both.

No matter how stressed you are, don’t explode over every mistake. Your employees aren’t robots. Unless these errors are a running trend, mention it, but resist using language that will humiliate or make your teams fearful. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a resentful workforce without the self-confidence to help your organization grow.

Use positive language even in a negative situation. Have a less than stellar team member? Let them know that their behavior is unacceptable, but don’t take this opportunity to belittle and berate them. Be firm, but respectful. Instead of focusing on the negatives, highlight good things they do bring to the table. Never use insults, and allow them some time to have the floor to explain.

Vice President Biden’s memo made his team feel valued, trusted, and secure. By choosing your words carefully and bringing out the best in your teams, you will have a happy, healthy, loyal and productive workforce.

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