Words have Power: Secret tips for CEOs and Senior Leaders


Words have Power: Secret tips for CEOs and Senior Leaders

I meet many leaders who love to share their ‘modern’ people-centred leadership ideas. They brilliantly and comprehensively tell me how they know and ensure that their staff are at the centre of the organisation. They reel off long lists of interventions that they sponsor and champion to help their staff enjoy their work whilst aiming for high performance.

Why do so many interventions that have all the best intentions fall short? Perhaps one of the reasons is the language leaders use. Often, it can hold them back from truly connecting with the people that work with them (not for them – did you see what I did there?).

For example, I’ll let you into a secret. People hate being called staff. Some people hate being called employees too, and of course there is no current situation whereby we should still be using the word subordinate. Some companies have moved to using colleague or partner but that’s not that far removed from employee. Why not just use people? In most circumstances, it is possible. Try it.

Some of us are still stuck in the habit of using language that’s from a bygone era, from when the world of work was very different. So, it might be a good time for a reflection point.

Let’s explore some traditional vs. modern terminology. Which of the following do we recognise ourselves and others using?


Traditional Modern
‘Staff’ ‘People’
‘Performance Management’ ‘Performance Motivation’
‘Talent Management’ ‘Talent Movement’
‘Change management’ ‘Cultural Evolution’
‘Top Talent’ ‘High Performers’
‘Areas for Development’ ‘Weaknesses’

Staff – People. That was an easy one – let’s move on.

Do we really need to manage people’s performance if they are genuinely engaged with their work? Aren’t they able to manage it themselves? No wonder ‘being performance managed’ has become a byword for exiting people who are struggling or disengaged. This modern world needs leaders to motivate performance, not manage it.

In the same way, we don’t need to manage talent. Instead, we can focus on identifying everyone’s true talent, nurturing it and then freely moving around the organisation, to maximise its impact and helping everyone grow and flourish.

Change management. This one gets me so fired up. Telling people that we need to change (‘or transform’) means you – the people in this organisation – are not good enough and need to be different. People may then be led through training to develop resilience to deal with whatever is happening next. Shockingly, the Kubler Ross change curve is still being used in organisations to help people understand the mixed emotions they might go through when being managed through such a change. This derives from a piece of research based on the emotions that people experience when they are told they have terminal cancer. I for one do not believe this is applicable to how people feel being told their company will rebrand… do you?

I propose talking about cultural evolution, supporting our people to develop a growth mindset and the ability to help the organisation learn, grow and evolve continuously, incrementally, rather than trying to achieve a ‘change’ in 3 months, which funnily enough rarely seems to work.

Top Talent is a phrase indicating that some people have more talent than others, or have talent that is better than others. This is not true. Everyone has unique and valuable talent. Yes – every single human being in the world. We can have the best intentions when we say, ‘top talent’ but can fail to recognise the disrespect it reflects on the rest of the people who haven’t been given that label. High performers are different. They have applied their knowledge, skills and strengths to achieve great performance or motivate the great performance of others.

Finally, why oh why do we shy away from being open and honest with people? Everyone has weaknesses in the same way everyone has strengths. Why couldn’t an area of development be a strength, something we already love to do and are awesome at? This approach to development can much move us much faster towards being a master at what we do. If we don’t ignore weaknesses, but address them head on and find strategies to make them irrelevant (such as collaboration or recrafting our roles), they will no longer be something we need to keep focusing on.

With all these shifts of language, the underlying principle I am getting at here is respect. Respect is the number one factor that affects performance in any organisation, any industry, any market and any country. Many of the traditional phrases we use are quite simply disrespectful, even if our intentions are good. This is why, if we want to be truly modern leaders, we need to use language that reflects our deep level of respect for those we work with. If we can get this right, it becomes easy to connect with people – people hear and feel the difference in our perception of them, and the positive response can be overwhelming.

So, when you write your next company blog update, or kick off your next town hall, roadshow, or skip level, do pay attention to the words you are using. They have power.

What are your thoughts? Are there any words and phrases that rile you up that I haven’t covered? It would be great to hear your views below.

We work with all organisations, all markets/industries, all levels of leaders, anywhere humans are working to help build better organisations through Strengths Based Leadership, Performance Motivation and Wellbeing. Click here for more information on what we do https://www.baileyandfrench.com/what-we-do/

Get in touch to talk with me about how we can help your people and organisation grow and evolve positively 01273 830830 alex@baileyandfrench.com


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