How important is the language leaders use?

Have you ever thought about the specific words you use to describe something and how those words affect your team members?

You’ve probably heard the concept of changing the word “problem” to the word “challenge.” Did you think switching those words was trivial? After all, how could substituting one word for another change the outcome of anything?

The truth is that language is a signal for images. If you want to alter the outcome of an event, you can change it by the way you show your team members how to see it. The first step in changing their vision is to alter your language.


Say the following sentence out loud:  “We have a financial problem in our company that we need to overcome.”

What are the images that come to mind? When you think of problems, do you see barriers, things that are nearly impossible to get over, around or through? Does the thought of a problem feel heavy, bringing doubt and anxiety to your mind? If this is true for you, what do you think your team members feel?

Now, use the word “challenge” to describe the same problem you thought about a few seconds ago.

What are the images that come to mind when you think of challenges? Do they feel softer? More manageable? Do you feel like gearing up to meet a challenge?


This little experiment might not be enough to convince you to use different words, but consider this experiment that was noted in the Personality and Psychology Bulletin 30 (2004). Participants were told they were either playing the Wall Street Game or the Community Game. Both groups of people were playing the exact same game with the same sets of rules. The only difference in the game was the name.

70 percent of the people playing the Community Game began the game by being supportive and accommodating and continued to do so throughout the game. The people playing the Wall Street Game showed completely different results. 70 percent of those people were not supportive or accommodating at the beginning of the game, and by the end of the game the other 30 percent who began by being supportive, stopped when they saw others weren’t cooperating.

What was different? Only the name!!!

Think of the language you use. How does it affect the way your team members feel or think? Does it hinder them or help them?

Here is an acronym that you can apply to help you remember the strength of using powerful language.

W-Watch your words for your words create your actions.

A-Watch your actions for your actions trigger more like-minded thoughts.

T-Watch your thoughts because your thoughts create your character.

C-Watch your character because your character determines your habits.

H-Watch your habits, because your habits determine who you are.


The next time you think words are not important, think of the experiment with the game. What words are you using to create the outcomes you desire?