Positive Language At Work For No-Nonsense Managers

When reading LinkedIn, you might think that the average firm is a caring and sharing environment. Everyone takes a formative approach to their peers. Managers give their staff good words of encouragement even when they make costly mistakes.

Maybe your experience was different? Mine was.


I have worked with organizations where positivity and empathy were not among the organizational values.

Meetings with executives in the military, law enforcement agencies, accounting firms, sales teams and outsourced call centers can be difficult experiences.

So why would anyone tell a naval chief, tax inspector or manager of a Russian call center that using positive and encouraging language might be a good idea? Why would they believe it?

Positive language – the business case

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Positive language makes work a more pleasant experience.

Staff are more likely to be productive, stay in company instead of moving on, and may even persuade their peers to work there.

The financial benefits of increasing productivity are clear.

Reducing employee turnover means less time and effort invested in recruiting and training replacements, and fewer periods of low productivity than partially trained employees.

Most companies have “recommend a friend” programs. The savings can be significant. A UK company is offering a £ 1,000 bonus to staff who successfully recruit their members. Most recruitment companies charge a three-month salary for the same. This can easily amount to two or three times the bonus, even for fairly junior positions.

Frequent use of negative language has the opposite effect.

Disgruntled employees have less reason to be productive and therefore earn less for the company.

Disgruntled staff are more likely to leave at the first opportunity. Human resources will need to recruit and train additional new employees to replace them. It costs more and has a negative impact on productivity.

Disgruntled staff are more likely to tell friends and their relatives how bad the company is to work for, thus preventing people from working there.

What is positive language?

Colleagues talk in the office

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Positive language should not be morbidly sweet. It has four distinct characteristics:

  1. It tells listeners what can be done. Negative language focuses on what cannot be done.
  2. It offers alternatives, options and options. Negative language offers no alternatives, no options, and no options.
  3. Positive language focuses on the problem that needs to be solved. He expects to find a solution. Negative language focuses on finding someone, usually the listener, to blame.
  4. Positive language helps and encourages people. Negative language does not encourage anyone.

What does it take to speak more positively?

Managers talk about a project at work

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Somewhat surprisingly. Here are some examples of negative expressions people use, and their more positive substitutes.

“You did not …”

It looks back at the past. It means what the person did not do without offering alternatives. This makes it clear that the blame lies with the listener. Suppose we replace it with “Next time, try …”? It looks ahead. It does not point the finger and it gives the listener an alternative course of action.

“You need / must …”

It is very forceful and places the blame firmly on the listener. How will the listener respond to “better if you …” or perhaps “should / must …”? The first option presents an alternative course of action. If the issue is related to legal obligations or safety requirements, then the statement “should / must …” removes the sting by emphasizing that everyone should do it.

“You did not understand…”

As a coach, I try to avoid saying that. If my trainee does not understand, then it’s not her fault, it’s my fault. I did not present it properly. I prefer to say: “I did not tell you properly / Clear enough …”

Linguistic land mines!

Employees talk during a work meeting

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These expressions are guaranteed to lead to quarrels and divorce proceedings.

“Yes but…”

It says, “I listened to you. It does not matter.” Try replacing the word “but” with “and”. You will find that the conversation progresses faster and with less antagonism.

“You should have …”

It focuses on the past and the “mistake” of the person. It does not show respect to the listener and accuse him of not having your sublime knowledge. A more positive substitute might be: “Next time, try …” It conveys the same message, but expects to correct it in the future.

“Why…?”

“Why” questions often sound like accusations. We all remember the teachers asking us why we did not do our homework. “Why” questions often put people in the “excuse” mode. They answer the question with excuses and not with properly calculated root causes. Coaches recommend replacing “why” with “what …?” Turning the question “Why didn’t you do your homework” into “What kept you from doing homework?”

“Calm down!”

Saying this usually has the opposite effect! It tells your listener that you do not care about his feelings. You just want them to stop expressing them. If you really want to help a person be less emotional, try telling him, “I want to help you, I need you to tell me what the problem is.” If the person shouts, it is more effective if you take them aside and let him unload. Often, once a person has expressed his anger, he can speak more rationally and apologize for his outbursts.

Next steps

Think about the conversations you had recently.

How many negative sentences have you heard? What effect did they have on you?

How many negative expressions have you used yourself? Now that you know more about positive and negative language, how would you conduct these conversations differently?

After thinking about these questions, contact us and tell me your opinion!

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