Words matter: The impact of language on leadership

Kimberlee Meier

Kimberlee Meier,


14 July 20210 min read

Author David Marquet shares how word choice plays a big part your effectiveness as a leader. What words should leaders avoid? What’s the best language to use? What impact does this make on your ability to lead overall and the success of your team?

If you work on one aspect of your leadership since the shift to remote work, make it your language.

That’s advice from David Marquet. He’s the author of Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say -- and What You Don’t, a book about empowering your team with words.

Having spent his life as the captain of nuclear-powered submarines, Marquet used his role to create leadership techniques that empowered his crew and molded effective leaders at the same time.

With our teams now relying on screens instead of office visits to talk to each other, it’s more important than ever to make sure our conversations count. So, Marquet shared his secrets about how leaders can use their language to help teams thrive.

Your language is everything when talking to your team

Language can lift people up—or break them down. And for team dynamics where collaboration and dissent are what you need to thrive and improve, using the right word choice can either light up the room with conversation or stifle it.

Take a few phrases many people use all the time, for example:

"We need to schedule an event for next week, right?"

"Does that make sense?"

“Are we all set?”

While these aren’t usually said by leaders with ill intent, think about the answers they solicit. These all have assumptive language. They lead the employee to agree with you—rather than truly opening up the floor for a conversation.

With the surge of remote work, it’s more important than ever for leaders to recognize the power in their voice. Especially while communicating remotely over video where body language won’t necessarily come through, your words matter even more. Here are five tips that all leaders can use to empower their team through language.

1. Practice giving up control

Too many leaders have trouble letting go of their control. If this sounds like you, don’t worry—it’s only human. Control is linked to autonomy, and letting go is easier said than done.

Take tennis as an example. The game isn’t a theoretical endeavor. Until you step onto the court and start hitting balls, it’s impossible to get better. To do that, you need to practice getting comfortable with not controlling where every ball goes and thinking on your feet.

The same goes with letting go of control and getting comfortable with others having a say in processes and planning. For example, get someone to choose the next book you read or ask your server for a recommendation on an appetizer. These are all examples of letting go of control and putting your trust in someone else’s decision-making skills.

Then, ask your team to take control. Let them run with some of their ideas. Give them some more freedom over projects. Then, don’t be afraid to launch them into action and cross your fingers—they’ll probably surprise you.

2. Allow people to structure their days

Nobody wants to work underneath a leader who only wants to hear “yes, yes, yes” all the time. Instead of expecting their team to comply with specific directions or schedules, the best leaders will explain their overall goals and get their team on board to achieve them—one step at a time. The biggest hurdle to achieving this is facing an uncomfortable reality: some people are lazy and don’t want to do the hard work of controlling themselves.

To make this happen, you must create structures in your team where people control themselves and their working day. And this all starts with you—the leader. Once you have control over your own behavior and know what you need to do, move on to creating structures that empower your team to ask questions, speak up, and have a say in their workflow.

3. Offer your opinion last

Collaboration is one of the biggest drivers of a company’s success, and you need to make it clear that your team’s ideas are important. If your team feels comfortable speaking up when they notice problems, it’s easier to work together to come up with ways to solve them.

The problem leaders have is that we convince ourselves that we’re the smartest person in the room, making ourselves invulnerable. Because we’ve crowned ourselves as decision-makers, it stifles team collaboration.

A better model to follow is turning our teams into decision making factories. This stops the natural tendency of people with authority making decisions and gives some power back to our teams who are actually doing the work.

As the leader, you should be the last one to offer your opinion at the decision-making factory. If a team member comes to you with an idea, instead of answering with a binary response like "is this a good plan?” try flipping the script and asking something like “how confident are you about this plan?"

Here’s how a conversation might look:

Employee: Hi, how should I handle XYZ problem?

Manager: Well, what else should I know about the situation?

Employee: It’s XYZ…

Manager: Tell me about your thought process while thinking through it.

Instead of telling a team member what they should do, we’re now bringing them into the decision making process and empowering them to think through the problem they’re trying to solve.

4. Aim for improvement in addition to goals

Asking your team to hit fixed goals and deadlines only leads to one thing: stagnation. As a leader, it’s your job to ask your team for more and encourage them to always look for ways to improve on plans and processes. This means getting rid of the traditional culture in many workplaces that ask employees to "prove" themselves by hitting targets and deadlines.

What’s not always obvious with this culture is that it’s harmful for leaders because it uses a lot of cognitive energy to manage these goals. If you are constantly approaching your team with a mindset focused on achieving fixed goals, there’s no room for growth.

Don’t be afraid to let go of the bureaucracy that comes with getting your team to work towards a goal. Instead, introduce a growth mindset that allows them to go beyond fixed goals.

5. Don’t squash diversity (it’s your biggest asset!)

Finally, flatten any hierarchies in your company that are stifling diversity. Assess yourself: are you crushing opinions in meetings? Is everyone always agreeing with you? Do people say “no” to you or question you?

Many leaders crush dissent without even realizing it. That’s why you have to seek out feedback from your team and do so regularly. At the end of your regular one on one meetings, include the question every time, “Do you have any feedback for me?” or “Anything you would do differently if you were me?” This will get the employee accustomed and more comfortable with sharing feedback.

We all know that our workplaces are mini societies where it’s easier to conform to popular opinions and decisions. What you as a leader need to do is help and encourage your team to have dissenting voices.

Tell your team that it’s great to disagree with what is being said in a meeting and that it’s safe to speak up and have a different opinion—doing so is key to creating intellectual diversity in your team.

Learn more about creating inclusive collaboration in the workplace from author Jodi Detjen.

Written by Kimberlee Meier

Originally Published: 14 July 2021

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