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Attention, Leaders: Strengthen Empathy by Dropping These 4 Words from Your Vocabulary

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“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” –Rudyard Kipling

Humble, empathic leaders have been found to be the most successful.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, defines empathy as “having the ability to sense others’ feelings and how they see things.”

Words, in conjunction with our behaviors, create empathy. When a leader uses words to label others, especially harsh or negative labels, it can be damaging to those on the receiving end on a deep, visceral level, not to mention damaging to any goal an organization is trying to achieve. To be a successful, empathic leader, it’s necessary to drop damaging labels from your vocabulary.

Management Research Group reports that empathy is widely considered “the most important (out of 22) leadership behaviors.” When a leader embodies empathy and kindness, it allows employees to build trust, feel safe enough psychologically to contribute, and tap into internal motivation, allowing them to achieve goals out of desire rather than fear.

And don’t confuse the harsh criticism of labels with constructive feedback. They are vastly different. Harsh criticism and labels tear others down, erode self-esteem, and harm rather than encourage. Feedback, on the completely opposite hand, is a way of suggesting improvements around a specific behavior while maintaining respect and appreciation for the individual.

Words have impact, so there is no trivial comment as a leader. If you want to understand your team members, grow in empathy, and connect on a deeper level, eliminate the following words from your vocabulary:

1. Lazy

We generally label someone lazy when they’re not being as productive or as efficient as we would personally like them to be. While there is such thing as lazy behavior, labeling someone lazy ignores the potential reason behind the behavior and disregards their capability to make improvements. Perhaps what you perceive as laziness in another person is in fact a lack of creative inspiration, difficulties with health or personal life outside of work, task-related confusion, or maybe just a slower-than-average work pace. Keep in mind that we all approach situations through our own filter, or “context” (more on context here)here).

Investigate the situation through direct conversation with the person about the behavior, seek to understand the circumstances, and look for opportunities to clarify or adjust expectations. And instead of using the word lazy, use the word that is the actual source of the behavior, such as uninspired, distracted, or overwhelmed, which will present an opportunity for solutions rather than focusing on the problem with harmful labels.

2. Selfish

Newsflash: not getting your way doesn’t make someone else selfish. Instead, it assumes their intention which may be entirely different than what you think it is. Rather than using the label selfish, seek out more information about where the employee is placing their focus and their priorities. If you feel an employee is neglecting expectations or team goals, it’s important to have the conversation with the individual about how you (and perhaps other members of the team) are feeling. If the team member is not receptive and if you see no change in behavior, consider the possibility that they might be getting a need or desire of their own met by not meeting yours. This helps build understanding. Simultaneously, it’s important for everyone to be on the same page when it comes to fulfilling objectives.

Again, clarify expectations while taking the needs of both parties into consideration. If the expectations you’ve set aren’t or can’t be met, create healthy boundaries for yourself and your organization by deciding how, and if, the working relationship can continue. Sometimes it’s a matter of adjusting your expectations, and sometimes it turns out that the team member and their current role aren’t the best match.

3. Wrong

In many instances, the word wrong actually fits the situation. Facts, or what’s actually true in reality, can be right or wrong. For example, if a team member makes a statement about a project’s data that doesn’t reflect the actual data, that statement would be objectively wrong. However, not everything in life is so black and white. When we step into the realm of creativity and emotions, using the word wrong just doesn’t work. Here’s where the word wrong gets used wrongly in the workplace: labeling a person wrong for their creative ideas, desires, or feelings simply because you don’t like or agree with them. Keep in mind that your reality is just as important as anyone else’s, and everyone else’s reality is just as important as yours. Avoid the judge-y “you’re wrong” mentality by approaching other perspectives with openness and curiosity.

4. Stupid

If you’re in a leadership position and you label someone stupid, you’re going to come off as cold, unfeeling, and certainly not a source of positive morale. Why? As Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” It’s true that some people are “stronger” in certain areas or certain subjects than others, but everyone has a skill or strength they can use to benefit a team. Find where the employee does excel, and support them in focusing their energies on where they can be the greatest contribution.

Also, check your reality—it’s possible that a team member who you’ve mislabeled as unintelligent may just need additional training, clarity, or coaching. Rather than calling someone stupid, ditch the criticism and try providing support and resources instead.

What are your thoughts on the words listed here? Are there any others you think are worth eliminating? Share with us.


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