Our Language Creates Our Reality

3 minute read

Sometimes leadership coaching can drill down as far as helping clients choose their words wisely. One such case occurred with our client, “Matthew,” who sought our assistance with improving his relationship and communication with “John,” one of his supervisees. We set a date to meet with both Matthew and John and work through some communication tactics, and then the following month, we met with Matthew again alone. In the follow-up meeting, I asked Matthew how he and John were getting on since our consultation.

“I think quite a bit better,” Matthew said. “I have discovered that the only way he’ll produce is if I ride his ass.”

“You perceive that is how to maximize his work product?”

“Absolutely,” Matthew went on to suggest that John even knew himself to be more responsive when “ridden” because he came from an athletic background and he was used to coaches “riding his ass.”

We subsequently discussed the impact on the relationship of Matthew’s language, specifically the phrase, “riding his ass;” did Matthew think that using this kind of language would move the needle positively on his original goal (to improve the relationship)?

“I think it does,” said Matthew. “He knows what’s expected and he gets more done.”

“How do you feel when someone ‘rides your ass’?”

“I’ve had bosses hold me accountable in the past, and that’s ok.”

“I didn’t say ‘hold you accountable’. I asked you how you felt when someone rides your ass, particularly when that’s the language they’re using to describe the nature of the relationship: they’re ‘riding your ass,’” I continued. “It’s not the same. How would you personally respond to a situation where someone was overtly ‘riding YOUR ass’?”

Matthew admitted he would not respond very well.

We are of the opinion, and most behavioral psychologists and cognitive behavioral therapists would agree, that the choice of words we use influences our relationships dramatically. In effect, our language creates our reality.

Did John need to be held accountable regularly?  Absolutely. Would the energy and perceptions created by language such as “riding his ass” result in the kind of leadership Matthew sought?

“Well…” Matthew said. “Probably not.”

And we should note here, Matthew is a client with a well-developed sense of self-awareness; but even he will still occasionally lapse into outdated para-military, command-and-control philosophies of “old school” leadership. This particularly happens when he is stressed and/or emotionally triggered, and he uses this kind of language in an attempt to regain control of a situation and reassure himself of his position.

But Matthew quickly changed his mind once he considered what millions of marketers and advertisers know: the stories we tell and the words we use impact how we view and feel about something.

Which one would “market” better: riding someone’s ass constantly, or frequently holding them accountable?

Over the years, we’ve heard all kinds of similar stories, from “hard-ass” managers, to “kicking ass and taking names” management tactics, to crew-cut-sporting bosses who relish making subordinates cry and beg for their jobs. But when we break down this kind of language logically in a coaching session, not only are we repulsed by its crudeness, but we discover that much more managerial efficiency results from skillful management of one’s language.

In the past few decades, the American workforce in general has learned they can have more autonomy and voice at work, and that self-determination leads to more buy-in, support, and loyalty in the workplace, which benefits everyone.

21st Century Leadership demands that reason and logic outweigh ego and power. A 21st Century Leader understands that dominant, one-up-one-down language creates helpless subordinates, not staff members who are empowered to do good work. In essence, a leader’s language must genuinely match what he holds out to be his values if he wants to lead in today’s workplace.

For this week: When’s the last time you did a language inventory? What do your favorite catch phrases and frequently-used words convey in the workplace, and how do the stories you tell yourself and others about work impact your and others’ products? How can you change your words and change your (and your team’s) reality?