The Words We Use

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.06 December 2001

for the Cutter E-Mail Advisor

It is amazing to me how the words we use affect people and the work environment. The examples I give below illustrate how we can sour people and our environment. There are, however, simple ways we can use our words to create a positive workplace.

I moved into a new job recently. As such, I've been paying close attention to everything so I can catch up and start contributing. During this time of heightened attentiveness, I have notice people saying things that disturb me.

Examples include, "They are afraid of me; I need to kick some people's butts everyday; That's my fault. Blame all that on me, and You should have heard them whine when I told them the schedule."

I have also noticed people acting in a way that disturbs me. These two things, the words people use and the way people act, are related. Our words affect people and our work environment.

Consider, "They are afraid of me." The person saying this, Lisa, was proud that a contractor with whom she worked treaded lightly when she visited. Lisa had created a workplace of fear. People do some things, like running from a bear, better when afraid. IT work, however, rarely calls for running from a bear. What we do is think, and few of us think better when afraid.

Next consider, "I need to kick some people's butts everyday." This speaker, Doug, also tends to create a workplace of fear. In addition, he tells people that he thinks they will work better with sore butts. This flies in the face of what I have seen.

The next statement, "That's my fault. Blame all that on me." can be interpreted as the speaker, Joe, taking responsibility for a bad situation. If said enough, however, it creates a culture of blame. When we have a problem, we need to find the fault, find the person who caused the fault, and place the blame on them. Notice that solving problems and moving forward is not in this sequence.

Finally, "You should have heard them whine when I told them the schedule." The speaker, Jim, assigned a judgment to what he heard instead of treating it as information to use profitably. This tells people that Jim will interpret and label everything they say. This causes people to try to say things that Jim will deem good. They try to guess Jim's response instead of trying to communicate information.

Given that the words we use affect people and the work environment, it is best to take a proactive approach. I should ask myself, "What environment do I want to create?" and "What do I want to happen?"

Once I know these things, I should ask, "What should I say to help move us in that direction?"

Consider the work environment if I reversed the early statements to, "They respect my position in this project; A big part of my job is cheering on people everyday; I am responsible for finding a solution to this, and They gave me solid feedback when I told them the schedule."

Instead of fear, kick butt, blame, and whining, we have respect, cheering, responsible solutions, and solid feedback. The difference is the key words.

If you're not sure of the words you use and how they affect people, ask someone to write the key words that you say in gathering. You may be surprised. You will, however, have the power to change.

Dwayne Phillips can be reached at