A few weeks ago, Stan pointed out to me that there’s a word I overuse on a regular basis. The abuse of this word corrodes my confidence and dilutes my authority as a leader.
And, this is not the first time I’ve been told this. Throughout my life, people have pointed out that I use this word way too much.
It’s not that the word itself is bad. It’s incredibly important to say it when you have reason to apologize.
The problem is that I often say it when it’s completely unnecessary and I did nothing wrong. Like many women, my habit of saying “sorry” has become weak, filler language that seeks approval instead of a powerful phrase to be used when we truly want to apologize to someone.
But, I’m not the only one who struggles with that word. I checked our Slack channels and collectively, we have said “sorry” in our conversations more than 137 times this year.
This made me realize this is something I need to address – both personally and as a team.
Why Language Matters in the Workplace
So why does language matter? Why do I care about the words we use at work?
Communication is arguably one of the biggest factors driving a company’s culture. It’s not something you can see, but the language you use impacts relationships with coworkers and clients and ultimately creates the climate for how you work together.
Much of a country’s culture is tied to language. The same holds true in a company setting.
Every company has a distinct vocabulary for how they talk about their work. The words you use can set the cultural tone for your organization. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to what you say and how you say it – especially if you are in a leadership role at your company.
At Blue Kite, for instance, one of our core values is to “bring your best.” Using weak language in our communication does not live up to that standard.
As the founder of Blue Kite, it’s my job to make sure I’m setting the right cultural tone in my organization. That’s why I’m addressing the language we use with my team. If it’s not something we want to say to clients, we don’t want to say it internally either.
We’ve Banned at Work
Once I recognized our “sorry” problem, I started paying attention to other words and phrases that we use that don’t reflect the culture we want to create. I also created open dialogue with the team to get feedback to identify other language that eroded the confident, positive environment we want to create.
In doing so, we found four other culprits of weak language. Here are the words and phrases we are eliminating from our vocabulary at Blue Kite:
When someone thanks you for something, how often do you respond “no problem”? If you’re like me (and all of us at Blue Kite), it’s all the time.
But, that phrase can be problematic because it reinforces the idea that the work we did was no big deal. Sometimes, that’s true. But, it diminishes our work and also the person thanking us.
A simple “you’re welcome” would suffice and seems far more grateful. That’s why we’re working to eliminate this phrase from our vocabulary.
If that’s okay.
It’s natural to want to be polite at work. We especially want to be kind and respectful to our clients.
But one thing I noticed is that our team was using this phrase “if that’s okay” in our communication with each other and clients. For instance, someone might say “we will publish this blog post for you on Friday if that’s okay.”
Much like “sorry”, saying “if that’s okay” is weak language that seeks validation and approval. It feels wishy washy and not authoritative.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes we really do need to ask for someone’s approval. But most of the time, we simply need to communicate what we plan to do. If it’s not okay, the other person will tell you – trust me.
As marketing and culture consultants, we get asked for our thoughts a LOT. Even internally, we like to send each other articles and encourage each other to weigh in.
Asking for feedback isn’t problematic. The issue is that simply asking for “thoughts” is too vague.
For example, a client sent us some work that had been created for their organization several years ago and asked for our thoughts on it. Although we definitely have thoughts on what she sent, we could have easily spent too much time providing her with the wrong information.
That’s why I followed up and asked her to give us some more specific insight into what she wanted to know. Her feedback allowed us to be more focused in our analysis and review.
Whether it’s internally or externally, we have become more intentional about this word. Instead of simply asking for thoughts, we ask or request specific questions to help us provide better feedback.
This helps us make better use of our brains and the thoughts we share.
We Could / We Might / We Think
A while back, my business coach reviewed a proposal I was working on for a potential client. In it, I said “we could do this” or “we might do that.” Until she pointed that out, I was blind to the fact that I regularly used that phrase to talk about our ideas and the work we propose.
Although it seems harmless to say we “could” or “might” do something, saying we “will” do something is much stronger.
Similarly, it’s easy to say, “we think this is the best approach.” However, our clients expect us to lead them and give guidance. That language doesn’t do a great job of communicating that.
Even though we are confident in our work, our language wasn’t supporting that. Now, we say “we believe this is the best approach” or we simply say “this is the approach we recommend.”
As mentioned above, we’re working on saying sorry less – and only when it’s truly necessary.
Since I’m not the only one who struggles with saying sorry too much, we implemented “the sorry jar” as a way to keep each other accountable. When we catch ourselves or others saying “sorry” when it’s not necessary, we put 5 cents in the jar.
It’s amazing how this simple act has helped us be more thoughtful about using this powerful word. And, already I’m seeing us use more powerful, confident language in its place.
And, if you struggle with saying “sorry” too much, this comic gives you some great alternatives to use instead.
Your Language Impacts Company Culture
Although it might seem subtle, the words you use at work matter. They often give a deeper insight into what we think as individuals and as an organization.
That’s why leaders in particular should pay attention to how people communicate at work. You might find, like we did, that your language doesn’t match your values or beliefs.
Being thoughtful and selective about the words you use can help define the type of culture you are trying to create. That means, paying attention to overused and unhelpful words or phrases to eliminate or examining ways to rephrase things that are more consistent with your beliefs and values.
By focusing on the words you use on a daily basis, you will be taking a small, but important step to reinvent your culture and reinforce your beliefs as an organization.
Trust me, you won’t be sorry.