Whether they realize it or not, leaders have a disproportionate impact on others. It’s not just what they do, but also what they say, that influences how people feel, think, and act.
Unsurprisingly, a range of recent scientific studies show that CEOs’ language (e.g., more positive words, more realistic claims, more trustworthy remarks) predicts the future stock price of their companies, as well as the success of their business strategy. Likewise, AI-mining of a leader’s words, which can be translated into a valid profile of their personality, predicts their ESG policies.
Importantly, it is not just machines, but also humans who are sensitive to leaders’ language; so, if you are a leader, paying attention to what you say and how you say it is critical to effectively influencing others, not to mention closing the gap between what you say and what you do.
In particular, understanding potential mismatches between your desired intention and others’ actual interpretation of your language is crucial.
Consider a few common leadership phrases that may cause unintended problems, especially when we judge their potential effects on followers.
“IT IS WHAT IT IS”
On the one hand, this is a statement of impeccable logic. On the other hand, it’s a sure way to kill any debate or discussion. In fact, this line is a call to inaction. It’s a self-defeating acceptance that nothing can be done to improve on a poor state of affairs—to be used if you are interested in instilling a sense of helplessness in your team, smashing the doors of hope in their face.
“IT’S A FIRST WORLD PROBLEM”
Problems come in different sizes, and there’s no question that one person’s problems may be another person’s dreams. For example, microaggressions are preferable to overt violence and discrimination, and a slow Wi-Fi connection is surely better than lacking water, electricity, or heat.
However, people don’t measure their happiness relative to other people’s suffering, and the fact that second or third world problems may have been extinguished in certain places is testimony to people’s hard work, and their dissatisfaction with their status quo. For example, if you think that gender inequality or racial injustice is a trivial matter today, relative to what it was 50 or a hundred years ago, then you are clearly not contributing to making things better.
Things don’t improve by osmosis, but through nonconformity, defiance of the status quo, and a relentless desire to make things better. The things you enjoy today are the result of actions that were triggered by a strong opposition to yesterday’s norms. Hard work is required to create tomorrow’s first world problems, and ensure that they are an actual upgrade.
“JUST LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE”
At the end of one of his plays, Oscar Wilde wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us look at the stars,” which is a rather appropriate illustration of optimism. Yet, while we tend to assume optimism is a strength, there is also a downside to positivity.