During times of uncertainty, people expect their leaders more than ever to set the tone and direction for their organizations. The fact that people throughout the world are pinning their hopes for positive outcomes on President Obama is but one example of how desperately people want to hear good news and experience good times. How can you as a leader step up to this challenge? It's as simple as choosing the words you use.

One way to set an affirmative tone, regardless of circumstances, is to make a conscious decision to use language that causes people to seek the positive rather than the negative. For example, many organizations are facing severe budget constraints. Consider the difference in the likely behaviors engendered by these alternative approaches:

"We can't do this project because we don't have any money."

"Given existing resources, what can we do?"

A positive approach is especially effective in helping organizations move forward productively despite a disastrous scenario. Asking negative questions (e.g., "Whose idea was it to do it this way?") directs people's attention to a past that cannot be changed, it causes defensiveness because we are seeking to blame someone, and it does nothing to move the organization forward. On the other hand, asking positive questions (e.g., "What did we do well in this situation?") causes people to focus on what worked and to identify ways of incorporating those things into future situations to produce different outcomes. Instead of exhibiting defensive behavior, people will be empowered to concentrate and build on strengths that will enable the organization to be successful.

Language, especially the questions we ask, is critical to organizational success because we tend to find the things we seek. In fact, questions have been characterized as "fateful" because they send us in either positive or negative directions to search for answers. Consider two different ways of viewing a performance management process:

"How can we use performance management to correct employee behavior?"

"How can we use performance management to help employees become fully successful?"

In the first example, managers actively search for things employees do wrong. In the second example, they seek ways to support the success of their employees. In which environment would you prefer to work?

The words we say and the questions we ask create mental pictures that guide our behaviors. Consequently, language is a critical determinant of workplace performance. Thus if you want to optimize your organization's results, I suggest you consider the implications of your answer to this question: What kind of language are you using?

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.


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