THE BLOG
03/30/2012 10:35 am ET | Updated May 30, 2012

Speaking Matters: Language Impacts Your Future

You're fired!

Once spoken, the words change your reality. A simple act of speaking brings a new future into existence. Words also have authority in other aspects of life. Consider the words "I do" at a wedding. If you don't say "I do," no marriage takes place.

Every time we speak, we make a difference -- sometimes a negative one. In business, if we fail to make our language powerful and effective, our future is limited.

I am working with the executive team of a large luxury hotel. The building is appraised at over $100 million, and the General Manager (GM) is responsible for hundreds of employees. The executive team led an effective recovery from a series of bad decisions and had begun to produce double-digit, year-over-year growth that exceeded its market and competitive set results.

I sat in on a conference call with the group CEO and heard the following exchange:

GM: The year-to-date numbers are moving upward, we are getting closer to budget and we are now taking market share from larger and more entrenched brands. My team is doing an excellent job with limited resources.

CEO: This is not excellent performance.

[GM, silent with head down. Eyes averted from her leadership team in the room with her on the conference call.]

After an uncomfortable few seconds, the Finance Director began to speak and reviewed the rest of the operating results. When the call ended, the local leadership team left the room, and I sat with the General Manager. She spoke at length, expressing exasperation and whether it was worthwhile to remain with the organization.

When I next spoke to the CEO, I asked him what he meant by "excellent performance." He was clear: "It means at or above budget." We then talked about a shared understanding of common terms. What the GM heard was her work was unappreciated. The CEO's nonspecific phrase "not excellent performance" created unintended friction. What the CEO meant to evoke was ambition to meet or exceed budget. He was astonished at how his comment was interpreted. General phrases can mislead and will create harmful friction. It is foolish, yet common, to assume that everyone on the team hears and understands the identical message in commonly used words. The CEO then initiated a practice run of one aspect of speaking consequentially--using specific and engaging language. He made a clear distinction between effective effort that is praiseworthy and the over arching goal of meeting budget which is a requirement for advancement.

It will take an exceptional effort to restore the relationship between the GM and the CEO. You might think you can take words back, we can't take back their impact. Much like the proverbial "you cannot un-ring a bell," words once spoken are then a living part of the record of the relationship. They impact the future of what we see as possible working together. Even today, a few months after the incident, it is not clear whether the relationship will survive. Certainly, their commitment to one another's success is unreliable. Three times since the conference call, the CEO has asked if he should keep the GM or replace her. It is doubtful if the relationship will last till the end of the year. Both market momentum and a $100-million asset are at increased risk.

What can you do to avoid such a situation?

To construct a solid platform for effective conversation with your team, shape common business language in a precise way.

  • Redefine important terms, especially those used frequently in your business meetings. Assuming that everyone understands a vague phrase like excellent performance in the same way is foolish.
  • Pay close attention to how others respond when you clarify a term and then circle back to deepen their understanding.

When you discuss an important issue, it is worth the time it takes to ensure the phrases that you use routinely are serving you and your team well.

What expressions are the sources of pointless reactions in your company?