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Check Your Words

Nan S. Russell -- They're only words. Some believe the school-yard taunt: "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." They're wrong. Words can hurt you in the workplace.

I'm not referring to the caustic ones spoken (or received) tainted with sarcasm, irritation, anger or frustration, carrying an emotional punch. I'm talking about simple, everyday, normal word choices. These words, like black ice, are not an obvious danger at first glance. But, they can impact your results. So, user-beware.

Words create impressions, images and expectations. They build psychological connections. They influence how we think. Since thoughts determine actions, there's a powerful connection between the words we use and the results we get.

Think about these two words: spend and invest. Would you like your bank to spend your money or invest it? Since spending implies the money is gone, you probably want a bank that invests. Now apply these same words to company budgets and see how that influences thinking.

Early in my career, I saw budgets as allocated money I had permission to spend. And I did spend it. I never thought of budgets as investing in the company's future until I was given profit and loss accountability for a new department and discovered my flawed thinking. I learned that in order to grow the department, I needed to budget with an investment mentality. Shifting words shifted my thinking and my results.

Try these words: problem and challenge. Would you rather a boss see your mistake as a problem or as a challenge? It's more than semantics. Problems are fixed; challenges are met. Different words evoke different feelings. I have a more positive frame of mind meeting a challenge than fixing a problem. But a word of caution. I'm not suggesting you play the buzz-word game like a colleague of mine who walked into my office saying, "Do I have an opportunity for you." We both knew differently.

Here are two favorites: bodies and people. As a young manager, I was jolted every time I heard another manager talking about how many "bodies" they needed, or putting "butts in seats." Later, I learned many of those managers struggled with departmental morale problems. I could understand why if they saw people as interchangeable pieces to a puzzle rather than individuals playing an important role in their departments.

I realized the words I use to think and talk about my workload, my goals, my projects and the people I worked with influenced my thoughts and actions about them. So, I changed my words. If I say I work for someone I have a different vision about my work-life than if I work with them; same with my staff working with, not for me.

Poorly chosen words can kill enthusiasm, impact self-esteem, lower expectations and hold people back. Well chosen ones can motivate, offer hope, create vision, impact thinking and alter results. I learned in twenty years in management my words have power over my thoughts and actions. They also impact and influence people I speak them to.

If you want to be winning at working, learn to harness your word power to work for, not against you; select words that create a visual of the desired outcome; and choose each word as if it mattered. You might be surprised how much it does. Want better results? Check your words.

Nan S. Russell has shared her workplace insights and practical wisdom with a wide variety of people, from coal miners and Navy engineers to college students and senior leaders at nonprofits and Fortune 100 corporations, igniting passions, crystalizing thinking, and changing results. She's a national speaker and consultant, an award-winning author of three books: The Titleless Leader; Hitting Your Stride; and Nibble Your Way to Success. She's a blogger for Psychology Today.com and her column, Winning at Working, can be found in over 90 publications. She's spent over twenty years in management, including as a Vice President of a multibillion dollar company, and holds degrees from Stanford and the University of Michigan. For more, visit www.nanrussell.com or contact Nan at info@nanrussell.com.

© 2013 Nan Russell

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