Words Matter

The tongue is more to be feared than the sword (Japanese proverb)

Evil words cut worse than swords (English proverb)

It is easy to talk.  We all have mouths and most of us are very accomplished at using them.  However, most of us fail to realize the impact of what we say has on others.  Very simple things that come out of our mouths can have lasting effects on others.

As the father of daughters, I see it every day.  A simple thoughtless comment from a peer can lead to months of anxiety and worry about facial expressions, dress, or other habits.  Meanness is alive and well in our schools.  Although some of this toughening is important for developing life skills, the pervasiveness of aggressiveness is shocking.  All of us can probably recall a comment from elementary or middle school that stuck with us.  In working with organizations, more than a few interviewees have relayed stories from their youth that impacts them today.  I recently worked with an executive that described how she was treated by her peers in middle school and the result it had on her management style.  Her experiences drove her to be successful professionally, but also tainted the way she thinks of certain types of people.  If we dig deep enough, we all probably retain some experiential learning from our youth.

Although most of us assume that hurtful communication is the prevue of youth, how and what we say can be just as important as adults in the workplace.  For example, I met with a senior manager a few weeks ago that described the major operational challenges completely in terms of high school.  He had peers that fell into the typical high school stereotypes: jocks, nerds, geeks, and rebels.  His employees interacted with each other much like middle or high school cliques.  As I listened to his explanation, his team members could have just as easily been students at my oldest daughter’s high school.  As tension increased in the office, different groups were “terrorizing” others by periodically commenting on their professional as well as personal lives.  As he discussed the examples, it became apparent that most examples of where “the brain was not engaged before the mouth opened” or “if I thought it, I am going to say it.”

Research clearly demonstrates that what we say influences the workplace.  Although most of us recognize that incivility or meanness of a boss has a real impact on morale and productivity of employees, it is less acknowledged that coworkers can have a similar negative impact.  In both situations, people deal with the environment as long as they can before resorting to calling in sick, speaking up less, and doing lower-quality work.

Psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues in their article “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” found that negative people and events pack a disproportionately large wallop on our moods, well-being, physical health and relationships.  Another important finding of research on office interaction is that a one nasty person can bring down a whole team or office.  Basically, if someone is causing a problem, more and more energy is shifted away from being productive to dealing with the fallout from the aggressor.  Plus, given that we are social creatures, we take on the characteristics of our environment.  As we absord this tension, we can carry it to others.  Merideth J. Ferguson, Ph.D., assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the Baylor University Hankamer School of Business in her recent study found that “employees who experience such incivility at work bring home the stress, negative emotion, and perceived ostracism that results from those experiences, which then affects more than their family life – it also creates problems for the partner’s life at work.”  Like a contagious disease, we can spread the negativism to other teams, our family, and even other organizations.

What can we do?

  • We need to set a standard of acceptable behavior.
  • We should warn, work with, and then eliminate those that “contaminate” the workplace.
  • We need to help those that have been impacted.

Although these actions will create a perfect environment, they will help our organization’s move toward more professionalism and civility.

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