Whether you are trying to engage, motivate, coach or reassure your team members, words are your most powerful asset
As bite size pieces of advice go, few are riddled with as many holes as ‘it’s not what you say, but how you say it’. Yes, your body language and tone of voice can alter how a message is received, but the words you choose count for a great deal.
Indeed, there’s a wealth of research out there to highlight just how powerful our use of language can be in influencing the perceptions, moods and behaviours of others. Take the study by linguists at Stanford University that showed the phrase ‘girls are as good as boys at maths’ perpetuates sexist stereotypes.
It implies, subtly, that being good at maths is a more common trait among boys. Or the study by the University of Michigan that found people’s perceptions of an event were far more negative when it was framed as being ‘caused’ by something rather than ‘produced’ by it.
Research has also looked into the power of positive and negative language in influencing behaviour and mentality. “In a study with the Israeli Defence Force, when pilots were spoken to very negatively their performance improved, but then quickly dropped down to a level that was lower than at the start,”
says organisational psychologist Guy Cohen.
“We see the same kinds of effects very early on in our development as humans,” he adds. “When you speak forcefully or use aggressive or angry language to a child they interpret it as there’s something wrong with them, that they’re a bad person, and so focus on that idea rather than the behaviour that you want them to address. There’s a fair amount of carry-over of that into adulthood.”
A POSITIVE APPROACH
Given that a central part of coaching and leadership is the provision of feedback, to minimise any weaknesses and maximise any strengths, this presents a real challenge. Coaxing constant improvements in performance without resorting to negative language is a genuine skill that takes effort and practice.
“Various studies have come up with ratios for the optimum number of positive comments to negative ones,” says Cohen. “Others advise sandwiching each negative comment between two encouraging ones. However, it may be more useful to think in terms of how you word criticisms in the first place and ensure they’re always forward thinking and focused on what you want to change rather than the person involved.”
As humans, we’re hardwired to resist being controlled, so if you tell someone repeatedly not to do something you’re likely to encounter resistance, however well-intentioned or sensible your advice. Negative comments can also cause the other person to focus on their weaknesses and failings, and encourage negative self-talk.
For example, while ‘your performance wasn’t great’ might seem a natural and fair comment following a disappointing defeat, it may result in the individual losing confidence in their ability, thinking that they’ve let the side down and even feeling a sense of guilt or embarrassment.
‘We can do so much better than that’, on the other hand, directs the team to look forward, to think about the improvements and changes they’ll need to make and to see the prospect of a positive outcome.
Framing the situation based on potential negative events, such as failure, redundancy and relegation, is incredibly disruptive and damaging to performance. People tend to underachieve when their driving force is fear rather than their own internal motivations.
“When I hold a meeting, I make it clear to everyone that whatever is going to be said isn’t personal, and that the aim is for everyone to be able to improve,” says Rotherham United manager Paul Warne. That means being careful to keep language focused as much as possible on unity and working together, rather than assigning personal blame.
“For example, using ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ or ‘you’ can make a real difference,” he adds. “I also try to avoid following a positive comment with ‘but’, because when you do so everything that went before tends to get forgotten.”
Your choice of words can also have a major impact on how persuasive your message is and whether it is digested by the other person or simply bounces off. Just telling someone what they’re doing wrong and what you want from them isn’t necessarily the best approach. Apart from the fact it’s unlikely you’re telling them anything they don’t already know, the brain tends to engage far more deeply with a plan of action or decision when it has played a part in its formation.
Rather than coaching by simply giving feedback and instruction, a much more powerful approach is to encourage the other person to reflect on their performance and consider the best course of action
to move things forward. ‘You were slow today, so we’re going to have to work harder on your fitness’ becomes ‘I believe you can be even faster. What do you think you’ll need to do to achieve that?’
“I might show a clip to the squad and then ask individual members what they think they could have done better,” agrees Warne. “What’s important is that they can appreciate their mistakes and suggest a better approach or outcome; that’s when you know they’ve really learned something.”
Warne finds it also works well to get the group to come up with feedback themselves. “Criticism from within the team is, at times, more palatable and definitely increases learning,” he says. “Sometimes I separate the players into three groups, then each group watches 30 minutes of the game and presents their observations to the rest of the team. The feedback they give each other can be more empowering than when it comes from me or another member of the coaching staff.”
When you do give the team your take on things, it’s a good idea to ask what they think of it, how they would change or add to it and how it fits with their own ideas. You might also build in a sense of the team by saying, ‘let’s work together to figure out a plan’ and ‘what do you need from me and the rest of the staff?’ The language is positive, forward thinking and supportive.
PLAY IT BACK
While there are certainly general rules when giving feedback, what works well with one person might be less effective with another, because we all interpret messages slightly differently. It’s up to you as the manager to adapt your language according to who you’re talking with.
“When you’ve giving an instruction, feedback or message to someone, it’s so important to ask them to play it back to you,” says Cohen. “That way you know exactly what they’ve taken in and understood. You may find that they share back a slightly different interpretation of your message than you had intended.”
In what is known as ‘empathic listening’, you first repeat what the other person has said (for example, ‘I don’t feel I’m getting anywhere’), then rephrase it to show that you’ve understood (‘You don’t feel that you’re advancing as quickly as you’d hoped’). Lastly, you try to put their feelings into words (‘You’re working really hard at the moment and you’re ambitious. It must be frustrating’).
This kind of talk effectively gives the floor to the other person, inviting them to open up, think about their situation and come up with solutions, rather than you closing the conversation down with one of your own.
Cohen says where an individual is from can also affect how effective your approach is. “Some nationalities respond well to language that’s quite abrupt and to the point, some are very expressive and others are more reserved,” he says. “However, research suggests organisational culture tends to supersede national culture, so if you’re very clear about your cultural boundaries people will adhere to them. When they go home at the end of the day they’ll then revert to what they’re used to from their own cultures.”
The linguistics of leadership are complex, but if there’s one simple lesson to be taken from all of this it’s that language is a powerful tool that should be handled with care. What you say can have a huge influence on the outcome, whether it be morale, confidence or a change in performance, so it’s worth taking time to consider how best to approach it.