“We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop. Half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.” - Peter Drucker.
Inclusion is contagious, and as a person in a leadership role, fostering inclusion is a highly leveraged activity that helps bring out the best in you and your organization. Minor language changes can significantly impact how people feel included and supported. And if people feel welcomed and supported, it’s more likely they will speak up, be engaged, have trust to fail and learn, and treat others with empathy and respect. This post is tailored for people in a leadership or management role who want to foster inclusion in their organizations.
Six words can diminish the contributions and confidence of others and lead to feelings of exclusion: simply, just, obviously, no, however, and but.
Example: “One approach is to simply run a linear regression with lasso regularization.”
Simply and a related word, trivial, are at the top of my list of pet peeves. I often see this in papers and textbooks, usually followed by a complex math proof or a multi-step technique. A sure-fire way to make someone feel like an idiot is to tell them that it should be simple before explaining what is most likely a complex topic.
Is the topic important to understand to help explain something else? Then, by all means, provide a review less condescendingly by highlighting that your topic is a prerequisite for what’s to come. If the topic isn’t immediately apparent to them, the audience can further research before continuing.
Ask yourself: Are you using this phrase to boost your ego and show off how smart you are? What is the background of your audience? Is this topic a prerequisite? Are you communicating clearly?
What to say instead: “You’re looking for a regression method that helps with the variable selection? Great—I recommend that you explore the lasso and possibly stepwise selection because ….”
Example: “All you have to do is just run the analysis and update a chart.”
This one hurts because I used to say it more than I should have. And I see this word used often in management. While just has multiple contexts, one unhealthy one is when you use it in a way that implies something is quick and easy. Not everything is as easy as you might think, and if it isn’t quick or easy for your audience, it can be demotivating for them. The root cause is often unclear expectations of the outcome—not how to get to that outcome (i.e., it’s your fault!)
Another unhealthy context for this word is when you use it to demean yourself and your ideas. For example, speaking up in a meeting and leading off with “this is just an idea.” The use of just unnecessarily downplays your contribution. Use “I have an idea” instead.
Ask yourself: Do you remember how easy or hard it was to do something before you went into leadership? Is there a better way to address the situation if there is a performance issue? Are you communicating your expectation of the outcome?
What to say instead: “What’s your level of effort to update the chart? It’s essential for an upcoming decision because ….”
Example: “Obviously, we see that complicated factor x drives y.”
Why are you talking about something if it is so apparent? And something that seems obvious to one person is most likely not for another. Focus on increasing clarity with words or diagrams that explain your idea instead of telling your audience they’re an idiot if they don’t immediately understand your point—because that’s what you’re doing when you lead off with obviously.
Let’s think through two scenarios: one where your audience immediately gets it and one where it is less clear. In the former scenario, your use of obvious is a filler word and doesn’t help. In the latter, your audience most likely feels dumb and might be encouraged not to speak up. At best, you don’t add value, and at worst, you turn your audience against you before you even share your idea.
Ask yourself: Are you using this phrase to boost your ego and show off how smart you are? Why talk about it if it’s so obvious? Can you show why something is obvious instead of declaring it? Is the confusion due to your communication?
What to say instead: “It appears that complicated factor x drives y because ….”
No, However, and But
Example 1: “Great idea. However [or but], I think x” or “No, I think x is a better option.”
Example 2: “I’m not positive, however [or but] what about y?”
It’s incredible how fast one can feel open and valued and then immediately deflated when they hear a compliment followed by no, however, or but like in example 1. It’s hard not to brace yourself for what feels like criticism when the reality is (hopefully) less benign.
A second issue I see with however and but is in example 2, where you add disclaimers before sharing your idea. While not intended, this has the unfortunate effect of undermining what you’re about to say next.
Ask yourself: Are you thinking of the rebuttal while looking for a moment to interrupt before the person has finished communicating their idea? Is there a better way to communicate disclaimers without undermining your next words?
What to say instead: “How interesting, and you’ve given me something to think about further. I have a different opinion about x, and I’d love to hear your input.”
Source: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter.
An angle that I did not cover in the above is inclusive wording related to diversity. The American Psychological Association has an excellent list for guidance.
The main point for wording related to diversity is first to treat someone as a person. We all have our differences, both visible and hidden, yet what is common amongst humanity is we are all people.
Let’s treat each other with more respect and learn to understand and celebrate differences instead of using them for identity and stereotypes. A few minor adjustments in language help foster a more welcoming environment for people to bring out their best.
The north star for fostering inclusion is when your organization feels comfortable enough to speak their ideas and trust that you’ll listen to their feedback. And yes, this means that you’ll get feedback that your actions may not be as inclusive and opening as you think they are. Remember that this type of feedback is a good thing! It means your team thinks this type of feedback is valuable and has some trust in you and others.
As a leader, your words and actions have an outsize impact. Use them wisely, learn from your mistakes, and always treat someone as a person first and foremost.