Language Barrier: How Words May Impede Problem-Solving
A Note From The Editor
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“If 'ands' and 'buts' were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas": In that entertaining quote, famed sports broadcaster Don Meredith alluded to the regret that arises from something as minute as word choice.
Intent of phrase, in other words, whether directed at the recipient or back at the messenger, carries a lot of weight.
The entire objective of a sentence, in fact, can be altered by switching just a few words. For example, instead of informing an employee, “Your plan is great, but I am concerned about the rollout,” you could state instead, “Your plan is great, and I would like to help with the rollout.”
“But,” here, is conditional; it’s an escape. “And” changes the sentence structure completely, flavoring it with supportive, participative connotation.
“And” says “I’m with you. ”But” says, “I’m hedging and protecting myself.”
Given such subtleties of language, constructive words from an executive don’t just give employees a temporary morale boost, they create a long-term positive culture that encourages employees to do better. Leaders who know how and when to hand out these helpful phrases can be the difference between inspiring a solution and prolonging a problem.
Use your words to help, not hurt.
Unsurprisingly, recent reports suggest that almost 70 percent of the American workforce is disinterested at work. But here’s the rub: 75 percent of employees who quit their jobs leave because of the boss, not the job itself.
Brow-beating, negative bosses can zap employee motivation and create an intolerable working environment. Upbeat, straightforward leaders, on the other hand, cultivate the kind of trusting, long-term relationships that increase employee retention and help a company grow.
In fact, employees are 87 percent less likely to quit if they feel more engaged at work. So, it’s in a leader’s best interest to keep the positivity consistent. Problems will arise at the workplace, but you want to be the boss who removes those flames rather than fans them.
Here are three cases in which positive communication can turn a situation around, and how the person in charge can make that happen.
1. Employee conflict arises.
Many decisions result in someone being at the “short end” of the resolution. However, just because not everyone can emerge from a dispute smelling like a rose doesn’t mean the loser must feel like manure.
Managers can make a difference here: A Conflict Tango study found that 43 percent of employees surveyed said they believed their managers didn't properly handle in-office issues. Don't be one of those managers: When an argument breaks out, pepper in positive, helpful language that leads toward mediation.
Here's an example of the opposite tack: While guiding the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight NBA championships, head coach Phil Jackson had the unenviable task of managing the egos of his two stars: shooting guard Kobe Bryant and center Shaquille O’Neal.
However, instead of heaping praise upon both standouts, he made a habit of criticizing Bryant in the press and favoring O’Neal in hopes of spurring the former toward his potential. The move worked, but it made Bryant lose trust in the coach and eventually led to both O’Neal and Jackson departing Los Angeles.
Ideally, Jackson would have been more constructive and less destructive with his criticism and ultimately helped his team win more titles. The point is that simple statements like, “I can see the issues from both sides. Let’s try this . . .” can point the conversation in a more collaborative direction.
2. Employee emotions flare.
Everyone reaches levels of frustration, either at something or someone. Twenty-seven percent of Conflict Tango's survey respondents said they'd seen workplace disagreements morph into personal attacks, and 67 percent said that the feelings that lingered led to scenarios of employees actively avoiding co-workers.
Finding ways to get people to work together, even when there is a difference of opinion, is an important part of any business leader’s job description. Kayak co-founder Paul English uses a simple method when giving employees feedback. He takes a colleague off-campus, then writes down five words on a piece of paper.
The words are a mixture of positive and negative, but they’re always honest and intended to help the employee be the best he or she can be.
In this way English distilled a tense -- and potentially awkward -- conversation down to its barest bones, which is all you need, sometimes. Positive yet constructive criticism can keep emotions in check and get employee and employer back on track toward a resolution.
3. Employee ideas clash.
Opinions are as diverse as the people who possess them. Nonetheless, each one has merit in his or her own eyes, and you should acknowledge that.
Even if an idea isn’t relevant to a current project, the holder of that thought just may have the next big revelation somewhere down the line.
In 1972, Atari contracted Microsoft -- then being developed under the leadership of a young Bill Gates -- to handle some programming for its Atari 800. A year later, Gates was relieved of his duties for lack of progress. How’d that turn out?
When you have arguments, always center the debate on verifiable information and facts, rather than opinion or belief. Approach the debate with upbeat and helpful words.
Positive words can’t completely solve a problem. They certainly can, however, help a message be better received. Affirmative words introduce acceptance easier and allow employees to be in better mindsets after disagreements.
Let your words be confident, energetic, committed, focused, and positive. Words can wound as easily as they can deliver solutions and provide encouragement. Use them wisely to impact thousands of people, redefine industries and change lives.