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Is the Language You Use Creating Workplace Stress?

Type: Articles
Topic: Engagement
By Jessica Burnette-Lemon
20 August 2019
workplace stress
Credit: istockphoto.com/djiledesign

The language you’re using at work could be costing you, big time. A very wise person once said, “Words are like keys: If you choose them right, they can open any heart and shut any mouth.” The way you speak matters, and the words you use determine so much more than you think.

There are many words that we use in business that are doing more harm than good. For example: can’t, problem, have to, why. They seem innocuous, but the negative connotations they carry contribute greatly to workplace stress—something that, according to the Harvard Business Review, leads to a 50% increase in voluntary turnover.

Addressing employee turnover

Assembling the perfect team can be difficult. Considering the amount of time, money and effort that goes into new recruits, seeing them readily leave can sting. What many leaders don’t realize is that employees decide their level of commitment right from the start. In fact, 70% of new hires know within the first six months if they’ll be staying for an extended period of time. It’s crucial that you start influencing their decision early on by creating a positive environment.

There are plenty of reviews out there connecting an increase of positivity to a decrease in stress and vice versa. The dire effect stress has on employees should be motivating enough to use positivity to decrease tension. It’s vital to improving their engagement and level of commitment.

However, if you need fiscal motivation, then yes, there are real financial benefits to workplace optimism. High-stress companies in the U.S. spend 50% more on health care. Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association estimates that stress causes 80% of workplace accidents, 80% of doctor visits, and 550 million lost workdays. These numbers are staggering! Imagine the premium savings of lowering that cost by adopting a culture of positivity. Less negativity equals less stress equals happier and healthier employees.

If this sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. All I’m asking you to do is switch out a few words in your vocabulary. This simple task will not only lift the mood of your staff, but it will also foster trust in your leadership. It sounds a little too good to be true, but it’s not. It’s the opening step to creating enthusiastic professional relationships worth being devoted to. 

Change it up

This process isn’t about adding words to your management lexicon; it’s about improving the ones that you already use. Take for example “why” as in “Why did you do that?” or “Why would you think that’s a good idea?” “Why” can result in a defensive reaction and shut down what could have been a productive conversation. However, replacing “why” with the phrase “Tell me more” invites employees to be open about their thought process. 

Here are some more examples. Note how each of the following statements makes you feel. How do they trigger your mood? 

  • “I have to run this meeting” versus “I want to run this meeting.”
  • “I should check in with my team” versus “I would like to check in with my team.”
  • “I understand your point, but we need to do it this way” versus “I understand your point, and we need to do it this way.”

Notice how the second statement in each line is empowering and productive? All it took was a small word swap to incite a different response.

Power words

Let’s test my theory. Below are the words I want you to replace, with the replacement words in bold. Which statements do you like best?

  • Acquired > merged
  • But > and
  • Change > improve
  • Excuse > sorry
  • Have to > want to
  • Let off > forgive
  • Long > extended
  • Never > rarely
  • New > latest
  • Permit > empower
  • Problems > challenges
  • Went with > decided on
  • Why > tell me more

Make these small tweaks and note how your team reacts.

There will always be challenges at work, and you’ll have to discuss difficult things. This comes with being a leader. It is possible, however, to do this and be positive at the same time without sugar-coating anything. You owe it to your employees to tell them what they need to know even when it isn’t what they want to hear. 

Whatever it is that you need to share, always do so with respect and honesty. The best way to retain trust is by remaining honest. Stop using negative words when positive ones will do the job, and remember the ultimate goal of creating a high-performing workplace through positive language. It’s not hard, but it does take effort to revise the way you speak. This isn’t an elevator to success. You have to take the stairs one word at a time, and before you know it, you’ll have climbed higher than ever before.

Jessica Burnette-Lemon Jessica Burnette-Lemon is the senior content manager for IABC.

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