Few things are more important that a leader’s words.
A careless word can wound for a lifetime.
An encouraging word might energize someone for a year.
A badly timed reaction might cost someone their job, or a close relationship.
As I’ve confessed in the past, I struggle with impatience.
I am in a hurry most of the time and trying to figure out the most efficient way to do just about anything. In many areas, it has helped me to succeed. I might be thinking about the quickest route in and out of the grocery store, or my task list for the day—but few habits may fuel my careless words more than being in a hurry.
Last year a friend of mine shared some wonderful wisdom he got from a mentor— Efficiency is the enemy of relationship.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but sometimes I get lazy and send an email when a phone call is needed.
A few months ago, one of my team members called me out on it.
“Hey, I’d really feel better if we could talk about this by phone. Do you have time to chat?”
Having the conversation forced me to slow down, listen, have time for the persons emotional reaction, and ultimately get through the issue with the relationship intact.
So which approach was more efficient in the long run?
Clearly, taking the time for the conversation actually saved time by keeping the relationship strong.
I had been careless with my words by sending an impulsive email.
I recently came across Thich Nhat Hahn’s summary of the Zen teaching on Right Speech, which I found extremely challenging and inspiring:
“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I’m committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division and discord, or words that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”
What would happen in the world if more leaders committed to speaking this way?
One thing I deeply value about my colleague (now boss) Melinda Diciro is that she loves to crowd-source all the emails we send to our team before sending them out.
I’ll admit, the efficiency part of my brain gets frustrated every time she asks, “Have we run this by anyone yet to get feedback?”
But this has been proven to be a highly valuable practice that has probably prevented numerous blunders and potential harm to team trust over the years.
What’s more, written communication is often logged in cyberspace forever!
And our remote environment has only made words and communication more vital.
In a 2019 HBR article entitled Does your leadership style scare your employees, executive coach Nihar Chhaya encourages leaders to “assume that your employees are afraid of you” and take lots of extra steps to be trustworthy and approachable.
Another 2022 BBC article Why overthinkers struggle with remote work (sent by the same team member that called me out on my email above) suggests that the lack of face-to-face conversations has made text and verbal communication an even more essential skill for remote leaders because the slightest misunderstanding can cause anxiety or broken trust.
In a work environment where people go into the office, those “water cooler” conversations that occur spontaneously in the hallway, allow for people to make frequent small positive deposits into the relational bank account with their colleagues.
In reviewing these articles, I was deeply convicted by the notion that I must continually strive to ensure that I do not promote fear or mistrust in my team, and that the remote work environment has made this exponentially more important.
And of course, the words we use with our spouses and children are of even greater consequence.
There are some passages of deep wisdom found in the Bible that I have also found helpful to meditate on over the years….
A soft word turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. –Proverbs 15:1
There is one whose rash words are like a sword that thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. –Proverbs 17:27
Let every person be slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to anger. –James 1:19
Take action now
How can you improve the way that you use your words?
Take some time this weekend to write your response to this question: What kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of partner? What kind of parent?
When you face choices throughout your week, pause and come back to what you wrote and ask yourself, does what I am about to do reflect who I want to be?
Have a great weekend!
*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.
Want more? Suggested Resources Below
- Say what you mean: a mindful approach to non-violent communication by Orin Jay Sofer
- Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg