Our Words Matter, Make Them Count!

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Stacy Feiner. She is an executive coach for the middle market and author of Talent Mindset: The Business Owner’s Guide to Building Bench Strength. Contact Stacy any time through her website or email.

The words we choose to describe employee performance can unknowingly stifle growth. Fortunately, we also can power up our language to promote growth and engagement.

What we write on an employee’s performance appraisal can determine whether a promotion is approved or denied. What we say during the selection process—the single words we use to describe a candidate’s skills, personality, experience and potential—will factor in to whether that prospect gets hired for the job. Our words matter, but the problem is the words we use are so wildly subjective. We use words but we don’t take time to choose words.

We think we are saying what we mean, but the words we choose are really just shorthand for approval or rejection. We tend to fall back on professional jargon and generic labels rather than providing thoughtful, deliberate feedback. When we chose our words, we are more genuine in our message, more sincere in our purpose, and others know that we put thought into the feedback we’re offering.

Our words matter because they inspire a person’s professional growth and ignite change. Words are the way we help our teams improve and thrive. Words carry with them our true intentions. But often, we don’t take stock in our word choose because we don’t think deeply about our intentions.

Consider a typical performance appraisal and these common remarks.

“John lacks attention to detail.” Are we saying he has a tough time being focused, or that he needs to be more accurate? Why does “attention to detail” matter in John’s position?

“Sarah is a strong communicator.” Does that mean she gains buy-in from her peers and managers? Or, does she instruct well? Perhaps she tells people what they want to hear to avoid conflict. Maybe she’s charismatic, but not really communicating that well.

We’re all guilty of using terminology that can feel empty, lazy or easy (“He has potential”). And we are all guilty of accepting empty terminology from others.

The good news is, there are ways to put power back into the words we use and to ensure that managers across the enterprise are selecting the right terms.

  1. Adopt a leadership dictionary. A dictionary filled with competencies defined in detail can help leaders select specific aspects of performance that a person does well or poorly.
  2. Emphasize word choice. Drive home to leaders the importance of selecting appropriate, definitive words to describe performance. Explain the ramifications of not doing so. (Complacency, for one. Add confusion or even apathy toward a manager’s review.)
  3. Critique your language. After selecting words for a performance appraisal, seriously consider the terms chosen and why those are the correct words. Going back to the “good communicator” example—is there a word that fits Sarah’s performance better? What are you really saying when you use the word “communicator?”
  4. Use words with confidence. When leaders understand exactly what descriptors mean through a leadership dictionary, and practice using the proper words during performance appraisals, the entire team gains clarity.

Which of the terms above do you use (or don’t use) on a regular basis? Click here and share your thoughts or experiences with us.

Certified Professional Coach, Communication Specialist & Author

I help motivated but overwhelmed individuals and organizations regain their purpose to lead so they can focus on what matters most to build a transformational legacy.