Words are manifested leadership. They have the power to open doors, build bridges, inspire vision, and engage the world. For the careless, they can be used to diminish, victimize, imprison, or destroy. Most of us do not have the luxury of a front row seat to witness our leaders’ daily behaviors. Instead, we largely draw our opinions of who our leaders are by what they say or write – how they assemble verbs, adjectives, nouns, and pronouns. Plans, intentions, position, perspective, and philosophy are conveyed by how a leader communicates. Leaders should give as much attention to the words they choose as they do strategy and execution.
Recent research suggests that even the pronouns a leader chooses can have an impact on the identity of followers and even the tone of the culture of the organization. In 2008, Heather MacDonald, Lorne Sulsky, and Douglas Brown conducted an interesting study of undergraduate students attending a university in Ontario, Canada. They wanted to investigate whether the words used in a leadership communication would actually “prime” the students’ self-identity so that they would evaluate specific leadership styles as more effective than others.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups based on the pronouns used in a short written description. Some students were given a description using collective pronouns like “we” or “us.” Another group read a description with more independent pronouns like “me” or “I,” while the control group received a description that used neutral pronouns. After reading their essays, the participants were given a Leadership Questionnaire that measured factors associated with transactional and transformative leadership. As hypothesized, the researchers found that collective pronouns primed transformational leadership in the participants while the independent pronouns primed transactional leadership.
In a similar study conducted in 2012, Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield from Texas A&M International University examined the relationship between a leaders’ motivating language and employee motivation, self-efficacy, and performance. A group of 151 healthcare professionals were given the Motivating Language (ML) scale to evaluate the language used by their leaders. They were also given an employee rating scale to measure performance and a self-efficacy scale to measure how employees perceived their value. The researchers analyzed the direction and strength of the leaders’ motivating language and the follower’s level of self-efficacy and performance. Results showed that employee self-efficacy was found to be 34% higher and employee performance grew by 20% with the leader’s motivating language. These findings suggest that a promising area for future leadership development is the intentional use of language.
The vocabulary of a leader can mean the difference of collective effort, success, or failure. Periodically, conduct a language audit of your speeches, e-mails, and other communications. Are you using language that is motivating? Are you using independent pronouns (me or I) when your intentions are to inspire collective effort? What pronouns are you using when apportioning blame or credit? Taking the time to monitor the words you use may be one of the easiest and most accessible ways to transform your own leadership. Be careful how you choose and use your words and you will be a better leader for the effort.