Leadership and Four-Letter Words

Words matter.

Mark Twain once said,

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

This truth is as important to leaders as it is to writers.

Leaders must appreciate the fact that the words they use will influence the words that their team uses.

And the words used by anyone will influence behaviors and actions.

Inclusive words can form a bond and bring people together. These are words like: we, team, together, support, empower. At the same time, divisive words can separate, segregate, and build barriers between people and teams.

Leaders set the example for things expected and tolerated, in both words and behaviors.

Sam Walton, founder of the Walmart department store chain, said,

“It takes employees about two weeks to start treating customers the way they are being treated.”

The same is said about the kind of words that leaders use. But it probably takes less than 2 weeks to impact behaviors.

Anyone who has been in any kind of leadership role can probably testify to the barriers that often form between people and teams. These barriers get in the way of effectively completing the team’s objective. And it is these barriers that often take up much of the leader’s time and effort.

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Dropping the T-Bomb

The Nasty Four-Letter Word

Thinking of these barriers brings to light a nasty, four-letter word that can describe, and is often the source of, most problems with any team barrier: T-H-E-Y.

How often have you heard team members say “THEY don’t understand our needs?”

How often have professionals in your organization say, “THEY don’t know how to communicate?”

THEY is one of the most divisive words used by any member of a team, particularly by a leader. It creates a mysterious, nameless, faceless enemy that is somehow controlling your world. More divisively, it creates an antagonistic environment where you and your teams have to work.

Once anyone starts to use the term THEY, of course there must be someone THEY are competing against. And that someone is, of course, US. There can’t be one without the other, whether it is implied or explicitly stated. And as soon as the competition between US and THEM is introduced, you will be spending more of your leadership time addressing relationship tension than you will be actually delivering results.

The message to all Leaders out there is, yes, words matter.

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Solution Set

You can do something about it!

Fortunately, you can do something about the mysterious “THEY” and prevent this issue from thwarting your valiant efforts as a change agent. The first step is to understand that YOU are part of “they.” You have more control over what is happening around you than anyone else.

You can break down the barriers, starting with those which are right next to you.

To do this, you need to do four things:

  1. Alignment: Make sure everyone who works for you and around you is focused on working towards the same goal. There can be no tolerance for hidden agendas. That simply wastes resources and energy. Did you know the only difference between a laser and an incandescent light is FOCUS? And with the right amount of focus, that laser can cut through almost anything.
  2. Know yourself: Be honest with yourself and understand your strengths and limitations and your preferred method of operating. Just as important, understand those things you aren’t particularly good at or don’t like to do. It takes real self-awareness but this is essential.
  3. Know your partners: Just as with knowing yourself, understand the strengths, preferences, and limitations of those with whom you are working.
  4. Take the first step: Do something bold. Do something for others. “THEY” starts with you. If you don’t like them then start by looking in the mirror. If “THEY” don’t understand something, make sure you do (See #2). Then make sure that you are explaining it to your team in ways that they will get it (See #3). If “THEY” aren’t partnering well, then make sure you rise above the conflict and become the best partner imaginable.

Do yourself and those you lead a favor: ban that four-letter word. You’ll be amazed what a difference that will make. Do these four things and you will be prepared for greater success.

Do you have a problem use the “THEY-word” too much? Do members of your team also suffer from this foul-mouthed language problem? Do you sometimes wish that simply washing people’s mouth out with soap would solve the problem? Or are you up for the challenge of cleaning up your workplace and making it nice and tidy for everyone? I’d love to hear your perspective.

Bookmark Leadership and Four-letter Words

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David Hasenbalg is President and COO of Customized Solutions, LLC
He helps individuals and organizations achieve their objectives and their potential
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Image Sources: farm1.static.flickr.com, bourneinstyle.com


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One Response

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tom Schulte, Tom Schulte. Tom Schulte said: Leadership and Four-letter Words http://su.pr/1kC8jO [...]

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