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.