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Understanding The Power Of Our Words


If I were to ask you what you thought was the greatest invention in human history, what would be your reply? I imagine for some of you, your answer would be the personal computer and all the technological marvels that now make up our digital world. For others, I could imagine hearing the invention of the light bulb being our greatest invention.

The interesting thing about this question is that there’s no right answer and that, if anything, it reveals more about the respondent and their perception and relationship to the world around them. For myself, I would say our greatest invention is language and our use of words to communicate with one another.

Granted, this might seem like an obvious answer from someone who regularly writes and speaks about leadership. But what really sparked my thoughts on this has more to do with something I heard in a talk and what it reminds us about the critical nature words play in our ability to successfully lead those under our care.

The talk in question is one given by Mohammed Qahtani, a security engineer from Saudi Arabia, which won him the 2015 Toastmasters International World Championship of Public Speaking. In his speech, “The Power of Words”, Qahtani shares a number of personal examples of how the words we use can have a dramatic impact on how others understand and view the relationships we have with them.

But what struck me the most about his talk was this comment he made about how our words can influence those around us:

“Words when said and articulated in the right way can change someone’s mind. They can alter someone’s belief. You have the power to bring someone from the slums of life and make a successful person out of them, or destroy someone’s happiness using only your words. … A simple choice of words can make the difference between someone accepting or denying your message.”

Listening to Qahtani’s words, I was reminded of two leaders and how their words served to shape how others viewed and responded to their leadership. The first leader was someone I worked with as part of the management team at a biotechnology firm, and how he guided our organization during the merger of our North American parent company with a much larger European multinational.

Given the significant change this might have on our organization, there was understandably a lot of anxiety and concern among our employees about the long-term future of our division within this new organization. While those of us in middle management were privy to some of the proposed changes, our president was more interested in keeping a tight lid on any information he shared with the rest of his employees.

It soon became clear to everyone in our company that our president was more interested in protecting his power than on trying to address and allay any fears his employees might have about their future within our firm.

As a result of his lack of communication to address the concerns of his employees, rumours were soon passed around as fact, leading to a drain in key talent from our organization as people sought better opportunities elsewhere.

In the end, our division was untouched by the merger, but thanks to our president’s lack of words to assure and support his employees through this period of uncertainty, our firm ended up losing valuable people who were vital to the organization’s future growth and prosperity.

The second leader Qahtani’s words reminded me of is Duke University coach Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski, a coach whose teams have won more basketball games than any other basketball coach in history.

With a record like his, it’s not surprising that many people try to use his tactics in the hopes of getting a taste of the levels of success he’s achieved. And yet, if you ask Coach K, he says it’s not his strategies or player assignments that are the key to his longstanding success.

For Coach K, the secret stems from understanding the power of words used in his team’s game rituals. Namely, that after every single play his team makes – no matter the score or who they’re up against – the players on the bench begin chanting “next play”.

By chanting these words, their teammates are telling their fellow players ‘yes, it’s great that we scored’ or ‘yes, we’re still behind in the game. But now’s the time to focus on what we can achieve next.’

It’s a simple ritual and yet for Coach K, it’s a critical use of the power of words to remind his players that “what you have just done is not nearly as important as what you are doing right now”.

In each of these examples, we can see exactly what Qahtani is talking about – of how the words we speak – and even those we let go unspoken – can drastically impact how others view their roles within our organization. Of how their efforts matter, and where we need them to put their collective efforts in order to ensure our success in the future.

Of course, it’s easy for us appreciate the importance of words in today’s leadership – after all, how else could we communicate our vision or what we want people to achieve if we lacked the words to impart these ideas?

But what this quote from Qahtani’s talk reminds us is that our words do not simply impart information; they influence how people see the value of what they do [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

And this is exactly what we see lying at the heart of every study looking into what’s behind those persistent low levels of employee engagement in organizations around the world – a lack of genuine communication between leaders and those under their care.

Time and again, there are study findings released that demonstrate that people want to know that their efforts matter, if not also why they should care about our vision [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. They want to understand the connections between their efforts and the larger shared purpose that defines why we do what we do.

And this is understandable if we appreciate that – thanks to the faster-pace by which we now have to operate – it’s become harder for people to make those connections for themselves.

We have to remember that our words can either inspire greatness, or they can extinguish the potential of those we lead [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

This is exactly what we see in both of these stories where saying things – or not saying things – that seem so simple and so obvious can have the biggest impact on both our ability to succeed, and on our ability to retain those who are critical to our long-term growth and prosperity.

With Coach K, the simple act of teaching his players the power of their words “next play” has helped to keep them engaged in the long view; of appreciating both their successes and their failures as stepping stones to greater achievements in the future.

In the case of the biotech firm president I worked for, what he didn’t understand was that the words his employees needed to hear weren’t contingent on him having firm information to share. Rather, it was about making them feel heard and understood; that he recognized the impact the climate of uncertainty this giant merger was creating in our workplace.

All that was needed to keep employees invested in our organization was a simple acknowledgement – you matter to me and I care about your future.

By sharing these stories of leaders on opposite ends of the leadership spectrum, we can appreciate that a leader’s words should remind people that they’re part of something special, something meaningful [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

Indeed, the power of our words is that it gives people a choice – a choice to either want to commit their discretionary efforts to the vision we propose, or to pull back and withhold the very talents, creativity, and insights that are increasingly critical to our long-term prosperity and ability to adapt.

So while the personal computer and the light bulb have certainly helped to shape and define the world that we now live in and the organizations we now lead, it’s important that we not overlook the power of our words to inspire and empower our employees to not only believe in their potential, but to aim to be better than they are today.

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