Words. Words. Words.
by Nan S. Russell
They're only words. Some believe the school-yard taunt: "Sticks and stones
can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." They're wrong. Words can hurt
you in the workplace.
I'm not referring to the caustic ones spoken (or received) tainted with
sarcasm, irritation, anger or frustration, carrying an emotional punch. I'm
talking about simple, everyday, normal word choices. These words, like black
ice, are not an obvious danger at first glance. But, they can impact your
results. So, user-beware.
Words create impressions, images and expectations. They build psychological
connections. They influence how we think. Since thoughts determine actions,
there's a powerful connection between the words we use and the results we get.
Think about these two words: spend and invest. Would you like your bank to
spend your money or invest it? Since spending implies the money is gone, you
probably want a bank that invests. Now apply these same words to corporate
budgets and see how that influences thinking. Early in my career, I saw budgets
as allocated company money I had permission to spend. And I did spend it. I
never thought of budgets as investing in the company's future until I was given
profit and loss accountability for a new department and discovered my flawed
thinking. I learned that in order to grow the department, I needed to budget
with an investment mentality. Shifting words shifted my thinking and my results.
Try these words: problem and challenge. Would you rather a boss see your
mistake as a problem or as a challenge? It's more than semantics. Problems are
fixed; challenges are met. Different words evoke different feelings. I have a
more positive frame of mind meeting a challenge than fixing a problem. But a
word of caution. I'm not suggesting you play the buzz-word game like a colleague
of mine who walked into my office saying, "Do I have an opportunity for you." We
both knew differently.
Here are two favorites: bodies and people. As a young manager, I was jolted
every time I heard another manager talking about how many "bodies" they needed,
or putting "butts in seats." Later, I learned many of those managers struggled
with departmental morale problems. I could understand why if they saw people as
interchangeable pieces to a puzzle rather than individuals playing an important
role in their departments.
I realized the words I use to think and talk about my workload, my goals, my
projects and the people I worked with influenced my thoughts and actions about
them. So, I changed my words. If I say I work "for" someone I have a different
vision about my work-life than if I work "with" them; same with my staff working
with, not for me.
Poorly chosen words can kill enthusiasm, impact self-esteem, lower
expectations and hold people back. Well chosen ones can motivate, offer hope,
create vision, impact thinking and alter results. I learned in twenty years in
management my words have power over my thoughts and actions. They also impact
and influence people I speak them to.
If you want to be winning at working, learn to harness your word power to
work for, not against you; select words that create a visual of the desired
outcome; and choose each word as if it mattered. You might be surprised how much
it does. Want better results? Check your words.
(c) 2004 Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved.
Nan Russell is a writer, columnist, small business owner and
online instructor. She is currently writing her first book,
Winning at Working: 10 Lessons Shared. For more information or to subscribe
to her eColumn, visit Nan's web site at