scrabble tiles saying "I am sorry"

Language and Leadership

How and why language is important

Two ladies talking to one another

I am really motivated by people being able to reach their potential, as I hope this website and my professional practice shows. I’ve chosen to explore language here, because over a number of years leading and coaching I’ve come to see the role of language as a key component of lots of other leadership skills, and I thought you might enjoy thinking about it as well.

So..

Lets explore why language is important and how it might relate to our leadership (and other things)Then we can get into a couple of models which I’ve found useful in understanding and exploring the role of language

Finally, and I hope this will give you something really practical and perhaps transformational, I’ll share with you a short exercise to look at how we can begin to transform our language, and I hope therefore aspects of our leadership

The words that we attach to our experience, become our experience

Tony Robbins

Just think about this quote for a moment. “The words that we attach to our experience, become our experience”.

Really think about that, and ask yourself what that means and can that be true, and to what extent is it true?

scrabble tiles saying "I am sorry"

I worked with a coaching client on how much impact she had to make change in her organization. One thing she felt was that she was often “blamed” for many issues that occurred even though they were not actually her fault, and critically, she had started to loose confidence and believe that she *was* part of a number of problems. Her *experience* was that she was often the victim (her words). Through working together we observed that much of the language she was using was the word “Sorry”. Even if there was nothing to be sorry about. She didn’t even know she was doing it, but almost every sentence had a “sorry” in it. 
Over time we were able to work on this, and we eventually were able to make small but steady improvements.

The words she was attaching to her experience, had become her experience, but by slowly changing that language we could change her experience, and it started to be transformational.

But *why* might this be true. 

Well.

Words have great power.

We can laugh and cry at a comedy sketch.

Think perhaps of amazing political speeches or the words of a character in a film, or language in a song that really moves you. 

But even more powerful than just the emotion, words can, and do, shape and form beliefs.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples on how that might work.

Example 1 :

Look at the statement ”girls are as good as boys at math,” – on the surface that seems a good thing, something that might address an imbalance in people taking up maths. But a recent Stanford study shows that the language actually backfires and re-enforces the stereotype by generating an unconscious bias that re-enforces the original false belief.

Example 2:

Language is coded to gender, if we like it or not. Think about “bossy” and “feisty”, are they used to describe men? Look at these results on words used in job descriptions (compiled by Total Jobs in 2019)

  • Lead (70,539 mentions)
  • Analyse (35,339)
  • Competitive (23,079)
  • Active (20,041)
  • Confident (13,841)

Example 3:

The US election has been much in the news, and even in the language that people use to tweet, we can see that specific beliefs are re-enforced. So this study looked into the way that democrats and republicans responded in tweets to the same events, and how the results of those tweets caused others to strengthen a particular political believe.

So, words can have a great power. Which means that we can use that same power to move ourselves, and to make positive change. 

It’s often harder because we use our language automatically, so unless we become aware of this effect then we might not notice it.

But, we can use our language to build ourselves up, or to knock ourselves down, or, at a more granular level to improve specific aspects of ourselves and our leadership.

So here is a quick thought for you.

Take a look at this list of leadership qualities, and think just for a few seconds how many of them have language, the words we use and the order we use them, as a key component? 

  • Communication
  • Integrity
  • Accountability
  • Empathy
  • Humility
  • Resilience
  • Vision
  • Influence
  • Positivity
  • Delegation
  • Confidence

Key Models

It can be very useful to look at models to aid our thinking, and help us understand the effect that language has on our lives.

Here I want to highlight, very briefly, two different models that I have found to be powerful in understand both the role of language and also some of the feelings that can be exposed when we consider our use of language.

Attachment Theory

Let’s very briefly touch on this psychological model, called Attachment Theory

There is a *lot* in this theory, and it’s possible that some of its aspects might open up some really interesting and deep issues for some people.

young child

The general principle is that much behaviour and development in later life is affected by the way in which you receive care as a child. The model uses a number of different categories.

  • Secure Attachment – Best able to explore when then have a secure base to return to
  • Anxious-ambivalent attachment – explore little and wary of new experiences
  • Anxious-avoidant and dismissive-avoidant attachment – may avoid or ignore conflict and change
  • Disorganised / disorientated attachment – may be prone to disorganized and strange decision making

There is a lot more new research that extends this idea to leadership, such as this article, which applies the raw concepts onto ideas around our leadership.

But, for our purpose here I want to draw out a couple of points:

  • Some of your language and some of your natural and unconscious behaviours are formed before you can even speak. 
  • Knowing this can be very permission giving to people, because we can rethink and reshape things as our adult self, even if we have had difficult or negative experiences in childhood.

The tyranny of the should

This model can be really practical and empowering and is based on the thinking of Karen Horney. She founded the feminist psycology movement, and questioned many of the male dominated ideas at the time (including the idea that young women experienced penis envy!), which would seem a very out of place idea now, but was accepted at the time!

The thoughts are that we experience “shoulds”, rules that we unknowingly shape our lives with, and whilst some can be positive and affirming, some can be very negative.

The “tyranny” is because these can oppress us, and extert power over us, stopping us from realising our potential, or controlling what we do.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • “I should always be positive” – Is that true? Is that always true? What about when you need to be honest or share a raw or negative emotion?
  • “I should not make mistakes” – Is that true? What about mistakes that drive innovation and change?

Should can be very personal things, and they may be hidden or unconscious, but many people have found working on discovering what our personal shoulds are to be a very powerfull idea

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