Careless Words Lose Hearts and Minds

By Heather Campbell

Careless words lose hearts and mindsBy Heather Campbell >>

With the spectre of recession looming over us and a reported 7 out of 10 business leaders preparing for more tough times, employees naturally become extra sensitive about what this means for job security.

Business leaders must therefore become extra sensitive about what they are communicating. If they do not, they risk building unnecessary worries that reduce motivation, morale and commitment across the workforce.

Two words in particular – ‘restructuring’ and ‘efficiencies’ – bring fear. They are inevitably heard as ‘you are going to lose your job’. This naturally means that energy is diverted away from work and focussed instead on self-protection.

Because they have become so loaded with meaning, leaders must use these words with extra care. They are best avoided all together. However, if you decide to include them, before going public review your message and replace ‘efficiencies’ or ‘restructuring’ with the phrase ‘job cuts are inevitable’. Is this true? Is it really what you are saying?

If yes, then fine, go ahead and use the terms. If not, find a less threatening way to convey your message. This might mean using a phrase or two rather than one word. But clarity is far more important than brevity when there is a risk of misinterpretation that can affect morale and motivation so much.

One Chief Executive recently used the word ‘restructure’ in a management briefing when he actually meant ‘I am going to create new reporting lines because I have too many direct reports’. He was immediately met with a barrage of questions about reductions in staff numbers and just how badly the business was doing.

And now there is a lasting – and entirely unnecessary – unease across the organisation. Although he has tried to reassure people, the perceived message of job losses has penetrated the organisational mindset and will be difficult to remove.

Clarity in leadership communication is always important; right now it is essential.

If you are facing tough conversations at work, check out our guide on how to handle these effectively – click here for more info.


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  1. It as much about empathy as clarity. A wise and careful communicator weighs mindfully what their words may mean to their listeners beyond the apparent dictionary definitions and invites questions to enable clarification of the real intent. People will fill any gaps of comprehension with negative meaning, unless open dialogue bridges those gaps. People will also look very hard for any gaps between words said and actions observed and draw confidence from consonance and anxiety from discrepancy.

    The message sent from one context is not the message received in any other context.

    That was always the case, but recently too many influential people have twisted the meanings of words to suit their own purposes of obfuscation and evasion that fewer and fewer people trust any message, especially the most apparently neutral.

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