Archives October 2019

How One Word Can Damage Workplace Culture

They say “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But words do hurt—and all too often, what they hurt is workplace culture. 

I have come to realize how important words are not only in everyday life, but in our workplace interactions as well.

And I don’t just mean poetry and prose. Simple one or two-word phrases can stop a conversation dead in its tracks. This can lead to mistrust and a toxic work environment.

I wouldn’t call myself a word nerd. But I understand words are significant so I try my best to use them as precisely as I can. 

Before I get to examples of words and phrases that can damage workplace culture, let’s look at some common terms that are often used incorrectly or made up entirely.  

Words that are commonly used incorrectly.

  • Adverse and averse
  • Affect and effect
  • Led and lead
  • I.e. and e.g.

Made up words and phrases:

  • “All intents and purposes,” not “all intensive purposes”
  • Enunciate, not annunciate
  • Espresso, not expresso
  • Cabinet, not cabnit
  • Nuclear, not nucular

If the words or behaviour used at work lead to a culture of harassment, here are some ways to stop it dead in its tracks. 

Words that lead to an unhealthy workplace culture.

Now that we know some of the words and phrases that are often misused or made up, let’s get more specific. 

If you’ve noticed a dip in morale or in overall performance at work, it might be time to ask yourself about the words you use or the words you hear your team use with one another.

Here are some other questions you can ask to check up on your team. 

The following are some words and phrases that can kill trust and lead to a toxic work environment: 

  • “Yeah, but.” This tells the listener that you don’t care about what they’re saying.
  • “You don’t understand.” This causes the listener to feel like they are being disdained.
  • “With a bit more experience…” This dismisses youth and enthusiasm. 
  • “I appreciate your comments.” This tells the listener thanks, but you think he is an idiot.
  • “It’s not in the budget,” or “That’s not according to policy.” This means you’re blowing the person off because you haven’t even thought about what they’re proposing.
  • “Five-year strategic plan.” Usually, this just means blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

While we’re on the topic, here are 2 phrases a boss must learn to demonstrate their trust in their team. 

Words cut to the core faster than a knife. They can cause wounds that take forever to heal.

As a leader, our people are watching and listening to everything we say, ergo (and I use that word correctly), leaders must be very precise with the words we choose. Words must be applied judiciously and thoughtfully—or we risk contributing to or creating a toxic work environment.

In World War II they said ‘loose lips sink ships.’ In today’s world, loose lips can sink workplace culture.

If you’re interested in going deeper on improving the culture at work or moving your career to the next level, you’ll also want to have a look at my 1-on-1 coaching services.

Ask yourself: Why do I want to be a leader?

Leaders are traditionally the ones who provide answers, not ask questions.

Good leaders are into questioning.

They know it’s important.

But often,  they do not act on the information they gather by questioning, nor are they spreading it throughout the organization.

Before you go too far asking questions of others, start with yourself and then your leadership team.

Use the following discussion guide based on the work of Jeff Grimshaw, Tanya Mann, Lynne Viscio, and Jennifer Landis to prompt thought and conversation on why you are a leader.


What you can do with this

You can print it, read it, share it, and discuss it.


How to use this material

Introduce. Discuss. Remind. Encourage.

That’s my recommended approach to helping people commit and develop.

And once you’ve done the introduction piece (e.g., introduce ideas or concepts), those last three points should be an ongoing thing as long as someone is on your team or in your department … and maybe for those special few, even when they go somewhere else (be a mentor).

I recommend reading and discussing each of the categories with your team each week.

Each can be read in less than 3 minutes and discussed in 10 – 15 minutes.


How to prepare

Share one with your team and schedule a time for discussion.

Or, share the guide with your department leaders and have them facilitate smaller discussions.

Ask everyone to read and consider each of the questions.

Ask them to make notes on anything they find valuable or disagree with.

On your own, make your notes, and answer the questions you intend to ask or give.

Give some quick thought to any likely objections or challenges to the material you can anticipate from your group. (Who might ask what and how do you want to respond?)

Here is one idea to introduce your upcoming discussions in person or by email – edit to fit your style:           

“I came across a few thought-inspiring questions that had a big impact on me. I thought we all might benefit from talking about them over the next few weeks – one a week.

Each question can be dealt with within a matter of minutes. Please read each one and give some advance thought to it. Make notes on anything that connects or resonates with you.

Let’s kick off next week and meet in the conference room on Monday morning at 8:00 for 30 minutes, at most.

I believe the effort will be good for our work, but it might be helpful to each of us personally.”


Discussion tips

  • Smile and be enthusiastic.
  • Avoid interrupting or finishing someone’s answer to them. Add a small gap of silence to an answer – just a beat or two – allowing someone to expand on something or minimizing someone’s feeling that they need to rush through their answer.
  • When you feel someone might have more value to add, encourage them with a “How do you mean, Nancy?” or “Can you expand on that?” or “What happened next?”
  • Invite different people to contribute to the discussion and have different people lead the talks each week.
  • Be ready to help the discussion move on if someone takes too much control of it. (“Good point, Bob. If we have time in the end, let’s come back to this.”)


The Discussion Guide:

How do I make decisions and actions

  1. What are some ways you or other leaders effectively “role model what you want to see more of”?
  2. Some people argue that “if it costs you nothing, it’s not a ‘value.’” What are some values you want to stand for, even if it costs you something or is inconvenient?

What you reward and recognize

  1. How consistently do you reward what you want to see more of? In your culture, what are some ways that you “reward A while hoping for B”? What are the consequences?
  2. How can you more effectively leverage your greatest source of power? (The power to change the way people feel?)

What you tolerate (or don’t)

  1. Leaders are defined by what they tolerate, what have you tolerated that you shouldn’t?
  2. What excuses have you used to rationalize your leadership choices? What’s the long-term cost?
  3. How can you be smarter about what you do tolerate? In the long-run, how is that likely to pay off?

How you show up informally

  1. What are some examples in your culture of leaders effectively “showing up”?
  2. In your culture, do you operate more from a creative mindset or a reactive mindset? What, if anything, does being reactive cost you and your culture?
  3. In your culture, does fear and egos get in the way of having real conversations, confronting problems, exchanging feedback, and innovating? How can you “change the conversation”?

Formal communication

  1. How effectively do you use official communication to boost your messages?
  2. What are some ways that the signals transmitted as formal communication are inconsistent with your other communication efforts?

Turning culture into a competitive advantage

  1. Is your current culture more of an asset or a liability? Is it boosting performance—or “eating your strategy for breakfast”? How do you know?
  2. In your culture, do leaders broadcast consistent formal communication? What is an example of signals getting crossed?
  3. What do you believe to be the gaps between the culture you have and the culture you need? (What’s your evidence?)
  4. If you move the needle on culture, how will you know it?