As a Leader, Words Matter

If you were drawn to reading this article after seeing the message in the photograph, you are not alone. If you are in a leadership role within any organization and would appreciate a brief explanation as well as an important reminder, please read on.

Probably your first thought when you read the message in the photograph was something like, “Wow. What a mistake made by someone who was not thinking”. Then, with a little more thought you most likely assumed that the last line in the photograph should have been “TURN RIGHT”.

Again, you are not alone. Most people will intuitively conclude that a mistake was made and that not thinking was the likely culprit.

However, what if the location of this sign is at the top of a mountain road, where immediately after you enter the off ramp on your right you must make a hard left turn to avoid going over the edge of the mountain. Also, what if the local travelers are known to unconsciously read the last line as (turn) RIGHT (and then quickly) LEFT. If this was true, then obviously navigating this mountain road and making the required quick left turn is something that the locals have become accustomed to doing.

Thus, in this case, having the last line read only “RIGHT LEFT” [where there is limited space on the sign and little time to read the warning] and being aware that the local travelers would receive and process the two words as intended, then the sign would be correct and the message effective.

Effective Communications comes in the form of words that fit both the situation and how the audience will most likely receive and process what’s being said.

Here is an excerpt from a book titled, Thinking Fast and Slow, written by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is the Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a 2002 Nobel Prize winner in the Economic Sciences. Professor Kahneman states:

“When you are asked what you are thinking about, you can normally answer. You believe you know what goes on in your mind, which often consists of one conscious thought leading in an orderly way to another. But that is not the only way the mind works, nor indeed is the typical way. The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions and many decisions go on in silence in our mind”.

It may seem surprising, but many years of psychological research has substantiated Professor Kahneman’s work in the understanding of how the human mind actually deals with judgment and decision making”.

Just as the mind “produces impressions, intuitions and decisions in silence”, too often the words that come out a leader’s mouth does not fit the situation and how the audience will receive and process what’s being said. In many cases, these are words that can cause irreversible damage.

Consequently, as an organizational leader who understands that the words that come out of your mouth are not necessarily based on “one conscious thought leading in an orderly way to another”, you should take control of your mind and always “think twice…and then speak.”

The first thought should be: “Okay. Here are the words that are about to come out of my month”.

The second thought should be: “Now, how will this audience receive and process these words and are these the correct and right number of words to send the message I desire?”

As cumbersome and this exercise my seem, understanding how the mind works and finding ways to have more control of what comes out of your mouth is extremely important —especially for someone who is viewed as a leader.

Why you ask? Of course, you already know the answer.

As a leader, words matter.


back to top