Words cut.



You might have remembered the specific times when senior leaders in your organisation telling you something that hurt deeply – and, after all these years (even if you had left the organisation), you still remember the wounds inflicted by their insensitive comments, biased accusations, and tactless rhetoric.

Words have an immense power to hurt even the most confident and capable of leaders.

Imagine a senior leader chastising a team player with these phrases:

  • “You’re not good enough. You only have [a diploma].”
  • “What’s wrong with you? You are not [bringing in the profits].”
  • “You should just focus on your work and forget about everything else. You are so [easily distracted].”
  • “You’re under-performing for the last three quarters. You should [know better].”

As a leader, it is your right to speak your mind and say it as it is. After all, that is your leadership style – direct, concise, to the point. You claim you are being authentic.

However, that style, really, is the profit- or task-oriented mask you are hiding behind. If you look at the phrases above, they are derogatory and demeaning, hitting below the belt. The words do not focus on the work or the task at hand, but insult the intelligence, self-esteem, or capability of your team member.

If you are dissatisfied with your team member, take three steps back and make it as impersonal as possible.

Step 1: Specify what it is in your mind without articulating it. For example: “You’re not very competent with what you are doing.”

This is your first thought, but it should not be the first set of words.

Step 2: Look at the descriptive word you have thought of (e.g. “incompetent”), and broaden the scope or task to identify the bigger issue or cause.

Is it an issue of inaccuracy, or not meeting deadlines, or being overworked and not delegating menial tasks to other members, or is it a family issue spilling into the workplace?















Step 3: Take time to sit down with your team member and find out how he or she is coping. Instead of saying dismissive phrases like

·     “Don’t worry about it”

·     “Get over it.”

·     “You’re over-reacting.”

·     “Life’s always unfair. Get used to it.”

·     “You should chill.”

try to exercise genuine concern for his or her welfare or state of being. This not only helps to test your hypotheses and confirm your predictions, but it also demonstrates your human-to-human connection, gains their trust, and builds better relationships in the workplace.

For example:














The above is a suggested script, and it is not meant to be formulaic.

It has been said that “how you say matters more than what you say”, yet I am suggesting that the “what is said” is just as important.

The learning point is this:

Words have immense power. Words can hurt. But words can also heal.

People, including you, want to be valued at work. Instead of slicing away knots at work, you can untangle them and straighten it again.

Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence, writes:

“Leadership is not domination, but the art of persuading people to work towards a common goal.”


When you learn that you can get things done without having to sound derogatory, demeaning, insulting, or racist, you start to recognise that you can indeed inspire and motivate followers with what you say, no matter how simple your vocabulary may be.

It may even be a simple acknowledgement such as “Thank you for spending your time and effort on this project. You did great.”

Words do matter.

© 2010 | EDMUND CHOW