Mastering The Language Of Leadership

When it comes to leadership, language is one of the most valuable tools you can use to empower people. Something as simple as taking a closer look at the words you use can make a drastic difference in your ability to increase employee engagement and performance. Many companies offer best employee engagement programs for this. While we all must work to keep leadership language unbiased, there is something else fundamental to look at: belief language versus behavior language. Not understanding the difference will impede your effectiveness.

What Is the Difference Between Behavior and Belief Language?

Let’s start by looking at the difference between behaviors and beliefs. Here’s a very simple breakdown:

What Are Behaviors?

· Behaviors are what a person is doing

· Behaviors can be observed, heard or experienced

· Behaviors can be measured

What are Beliefs?

· Beliefs describe a person’s internal judgments about another

· Beliefs are not behaviors

· Beliefs are not directly visible or measurable

Behavior Language

How do these two terms apply to language? Let’s start by talking about behavior language. When you are using behavior language, you are talking about something specific and measurable, because behaving is about doing. This type of language also requires more thought. An example of behavior language is, “leaves the office at 4:30pm.”

Belief Language

On the other hand, belief language requires a lot less thought. It is centered around judgments and ideas. You’re probably used to hearing belief language on a daily basis. An example of belief language is “rude.” Rude is not something a person did; it’s a judgement of a behavior.

The Problem

Here’s the problem: Using a word like “rude” is open to interpretation. Does rude mean an employee doesn’t speak to coworkers? Does rude mean they interrupt in meetings? Does rude mean emails are terse? You can see how this kind of language can lead to miscommunication and misinterpretation.

Yet using a behavior language, like, “doesn’t notify the team when going to be late or miss a meeting,” makes things pretty clear. That statement allows a person to know exactly what is being discussed.

Belief and Behavior Language in Action

Here’s an example. A manager might say, “Jordan, I need to you be more organized when attending meetings.”

Okay, what is organized exactly? Maybe Jordan thinks organized means reserving the conference room well in advance and arriving fifteen minutes early. So he changes his behavior accordingly.

Three weeks go by and Jordan ensures rooms are arranged and he arrives early to every meeting. He’s feeling confident in the changes he made. Yet after the third meeting, his manager pulls him aside and says, “Jordan, I have already spoken to you about being more organized. What happened?” Jordan replies that he’s been setting up the rooms and arriving on time since they spoke. Yet the manager replies, “Yes but, I want you to have a pre-distributed agenda for every meeting, not come early.”

Why Didn’t You Say So?

Jordan shakes his head and asks, “Okay, then why didn’t you say so?” And that question is the essence of the problem with belief language. Only the speaker knew exactly what the word meant and what it would look like to him. How can you create change if no one knows what specifically you’d like changed?

Keep an eye out for common belief language and check yourself when you use it. Here are some examples: team player, proactive, responsible, cooperative, and unmotivated. You may think you know what team player means, but we all have our own interpretation of it. Maybe one person sees a team player as someone who instigates debate in meetings, while the other sees team player as someone who stays late every night to make sure deadlines are met. So telling an employee that they are not being a team player is completely unclear and will not lead to improving behavior.

What Can You Do? Stop Yourself and Ask This Question.

Belief language usually comes to mind first. What can you do when it pops up? The goal is to identify the behavior language that exists underneath a belief. For example, let’s go back to the concept of “rude.” What behavior exists underneath the term rude? It could be eye rolling, interrupting at meetings, not saying hello in the hallways or any variety of things. Once you identify the behavior, you can transform your language.

A Tool for Transforming Belief Language Into Behavior Language

Okay, but how? My favorite tool for transforming belief language into behavior language is this simple question: “What does that look like?” If you can answer that question, you will be effectively translating your belief language into behavior language.

This same tool can be used from the other side as well. When someone asks you to do something or make an adjustment in your own behavior, ask them, “What does that look like?’

Here’s an example. Say a leader says to you, “I’d like you to help your team be more successful.” I’d ask, what does that look like?

As a warning, I will say that many people will think we all know what success looks like! That is incorrect. Does success look like increased revenue? Client satisfaction as seen by reviews? Higher scores in employee engagement surveys? And what are the goals? Does this “success” need to be actualized in two months? Six months? When I know the answers to these questions, I will be able to change my behavior to achieve the required outcome.

So be mindful of your language when talking to a client, colleague or employee. Are you setting up a potential miscommunication by using belief language? Or are you using specific examples that will lead to behavioral change? Master the language of leadership.

As a quick practice, think about your own goals. Choose one and ask yourself, “What does that look like?”

Let’s share experiences. Leave a comment below, send me an email, or find me on Twitter.

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CHCI believes that the skills, capabilities, and well-being of employees are the most integral parts of any organization’s path to long-term success.