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The power of four-letter words to unlock employee potential

Four-letter words have the power to shut down or spur employee potential. Have the courage to use the right four-letter words and watch what happens.

Executives, leaders and organizations need to stop using some four-letter words ASAP. 

I am not talking about the ones you think I am. 

The type of four-letter words that often pervade the workplace are not the expletives that could earn you a visit to the HR office, but they are, in my estimation, equally offensive.

The four-letter words we hear so often at work include:

  • can't
  • quit
  • lose
  • envy
  • hate

These are words that crush employee potential and quash innovation. They have the power to transform your organization into a dark and desolate place.

The four-letter word hate is especially insidious because it's used so indiscriminately in daily life. We say things like "I hate beets" or "Boy, do I hate it when it rains like this" or "Wow, I really hate that TV show." Say a word often enough and it becomes easier to say. We become inured to its meaning. But when a word like hate is aimed at a person all its ferociousness comes roaring back. To say, "I hate Bill" or "I hate Jane" is a powerfully corrosive statement.

There's something in us called the negativity bias. When two events or facts are communicated to us with the same intensity, the one that's negative gets more of our attention.
Joseph Flahiffleadership and organizational agility expert, Whitewater Projects Inc.

That's because there's something in us called the negativity bias. When two events or facts are communicated to us with the same intensity, the one that's negative gets more of our attention. It is a strange bias, but the bias is linked to how we evolved and, in particular, to the human fight or flight response. 

To wit: It was more important for humans to remember where the lions hung out than where the berries were abundant. If the lion killed you, it didn't matter that you remembered where the fruit grew. We evolved to pay more attention to the negative things in life.

Negative four-letter words sink deep when they hit. These are the four-letter words we need to use less of in our day-to-day work.

Four-letter words that maximize employee potential

There is another set of four letter words, however, that I propose we use 10 times more often at work:

  • care
  • grow
  • kind
  • safe
  • heal
  • hope

These are words that can transform your organization, unlocking employee potential and spurring innovation.

Indeed, hope is as potent a four-letter word as hate. It is often used to convey a wish -- "I hope I get a bonus." Combined with the word "to" it conveys a greater expectation that what is wished for will be fulfilled. "I hope to see to you soon." Combine it with the word "for" and it takes on a slightly different meaning. But in all its permutations, the word hope has a positive aura that empowers employees.

Permit me to throw out another four-letter word we almost never hear in the office.

That word is love. If we do use the word love at work, it's typically in the haphazard way we use the word hate. "I love beets" or "I love this TV show."

I can understand our reticence to use this word at work. Compared with some other languages, the English language is actually pretty weak when it comes to the word love. Greek, for example, has four different words for love.

Storge expresses a family kind of love. Eros describes the passionate love between lovers. Philia is the love you feel for a best friend or for your home city. The fourth kind, Agape, is selfless love, or charity -- toward friends and enemies alike. It is an unconditional love that has no expectation of reciprocation.

The philia and agape versions of the word love are the ones I'd like to see a lot more of in business -- as in, love for the work your employees do, love for the loyalty of your customers, love for the dedication of a good boss or for the investor who had faith in what you are doing. Charity without the quid pro quo.

Transform your organization

Corny?

You'll be amazed at how positive language can transform workplace culture.

May I share a brag?

I was called in to help a company. They had tried to adopt Agile practices once before, but it just didn't work. The problem was manifold, but one key was that the leadership team didn't really get that their jobs had to change too. One of the first things I did was to meet with each of the managers individually and understand where they were coming from and how I could help. I then coached them through the changes they had to make -- and I kept coaching until their behavioral changes began to alter how work was getting done. About nine months later, a tenured product manager stopped me one day in the hall and said:

"Joseph, I just want to thank you," she said. "I used to hate coming here. The changes you set in motion have completely turned this place around for me, so that today I really enjoy what I'm doing. You revolutionized my life."  That is an actual quote, more or less.

What did I do? Among other work process changes made, I used the language of hope and love to unlock employee potential.

Hope keeps us alive. It keeps us getting out of bed in the morning and coming to work. It keeps us excited and engaged. It keeps our workplaces from becoming dark and desolate environments. Being charitable toward the people we work with just plain makes us better people.

Many of us, myself included at times, feel that engendering hope and practicing charity in the workplace is a sign of weakness in a leader. But the opposite is true.

Try this exercise

At the end of each day for five days in a row, make a "T" chart on a piece of paper. On the left, write the negative four-letter words you used at work (can't, quit, envy, lose and hate). Then on the right identify the times when you used positive four-letter words -- heal, care, hope and love.

Post here how it went; I would love to hear from you.

About the author:
Joseph Flahiff is an internationally recognized leadership and organizational agility expert at 
Whitewater Projects Inc. He has worked with Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, startups and publicly traded firms, where he has been recognized as an experienced, pragmatic and innovative adviser. He is the author of Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A practical guide for complex organizations. Learn more at www.whitewaterprojects.com.

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This was last published in March 2017

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