The Vocabulary of Leadership: How Mere Words Shape Organizational Realities
by Dr. Jeffrey D. Yergler

Ever wonder why you walk away from discussions with people feeling either elated and positive or discouraged and pessimistic? When we walk away from a conversation with someone who has complained, bemoaned and lamented, especially when they are in a position of leadership within the organization, they have a tendency to profoundly impact our own perception of reality. We often find ourselves doubting, struggling and wondering too. Yet, few stop to think and reflect that all of our sudden internal roiling about the stability and direction of the organization (the inevitable aftermath of an encounter with a negative thinking and speaking leader) is stimulated by another's use of language to describe the reality as they perceive it. Their perceptions may have little if anything to do with "what really is" yet their choice of words, phrases and attached emotions easily inject us with anxiety and suspicion. Why is this so?

No one has to tell you that leaders set the stage and make the impact in the organization. A leader's actions and the way they converse within relationships build and define realities for others. Indeed, reality, regardless of the size or nature of the organization, is established by what people experience. However, there is another ingredient that builds realities for others in the organization that is far more powerful than the obvious program, building or tangible expression of care. This ingredient is almost always overlooked, ignored and undervalued by most leaders. This ingredient is the vocabulary (ies) leaders use to describe and communicate with others. I have in mind here not only the impact these leaders have on one another but especially the impact leaders have on the people they lead.

There are two sets of vocabularies that are available to leaders: deficit vocabularies (negative talk) and appreciative vocabularies (positive talk). Both have tremendous power to build and construct realities. What you choose makes all the difference!

Think for a moment, why is it that so many organizations, though they would strive to excel, grow, and mature, never really get off the ground and move toward incredible profitability and success? They have the location, resources, staff, ideas and business models yet they cannot seem to generate enough internal excitement, joy and momentum to fully actualize their potential? I would submit to you that even with an abundance of positive factors and resources, the leaders and critical managers in these organizations sabotage their own potential through their use of deficit vocabularies and negative discourse about the character, products and culture of the business. On the other hand, organizations that are able to actualize their full potential, meaning they execute their potential and turn it into positive end results, use appreciative vocabularies or positive discourse. What makes the former so damaging and the latter so surprising is that leaders, generally speaking, are totally unaware of how their choice of words and conversation patterns create social and business realities for others. Additionally, the people who are the recipients of a leader's discourse tend to be completely unaware of how the language of leadership affects their perceptions of reality as well as their overall performance.

ap·pre·ci·ate

Function: verb
1 a : to grasp the nature, worth, quality, or significance of, to appreciate the difference between right and wrong; b : to value or admire highly; c : to judge with heightened perception or understanding : be fully aware of; d : to recognize with gratitude;

2 : to increase the value of.

Synonyms: VALUING, PRIZING, ESTEEMING, and HONORING.

vo·cab·u·lary

Function: noun

1 : a list or collection of words or of words and phrases usually alphabetically arranged and explained or defined :

2 a : a sum or stock of words employed by a language, group, individual, or work or in a field of knowledge b : a list or collection of terms or codes available for use

3 : a supply of expressive techniques or devices

Becoming aware of vocabulary as a reality builder is critical for leaders who want to see their organization grow and mature. Appreciative vocabularies must be regularly employed by every leader and manager so that, when combined with products, resources and solid organizational and strategic planning, a positive and affirming business culture for continued growth and maturity results. It is critical for leaders to know how language impacts and builds reality for the simple fact that much of our leadership unfolds through the way we speak, describe, identify, and connect with others in and beyond the organization.

There are two sets of vocabularies that are always available to leaders: deficit vocabularies/discourse and appreciative vocabularies/discourse. Both have tremendous power to build realities for others on either the positive or negative side of the ledger. If a leader wants to contribute to a positive, generative, hopeful and optimistic future, they need to begin with their own use of language and how the use of that language shapes their own perceptions of what "is." Let's take a brief look at how both sets of vocabularies available to leaders creates specific realities and outcomes.

Leaders and Deficit Vocabularies

Peter Steinke and his work with understanding how organizations function as systems, provides us with critical insight to the negative influences leaders can have on an organizational system (a system would be defined as the specific matrix of relationships, attitudes and behaviors within a certain organization). In short, people in leadership positions within the organization can inject the larger system with anxiety and negativity leading to under-performing attitudes simply by the way they perceive and describe their reality whether or not their language has anything to do with what really exists. By virtue of the fact that these people are in leadership positions, others not in leadership positions place significant value and stock in the words they hear. As they hear leaders utilize deficit vocabularies and negative discourse, their own perception of reality is shaped negatively, again, whether or not that perception is based on factual reality. Simply because a leader is in possession of information or facts seldom mean that their interpretation of that information or facts is correct or accurate. Additionally, the surrounding context that gives rise to this information, facts or decisions, are always essential to an accurate understanding. Leaders and managers who utilize deficit vocabularies are infamous for eliminating the larger circumstances and contextual issues that, if understood, would provide a more holistic understanding of specific pieces of information. When context is abandoned in conversation, meaning and understanding suffer.

Examples of Deficit Vocabularies and/or Discourse:
From, Appreciative Inquiry Handbook (2003)

Here are some examples of deficit vocabularies and styles of negative discourse that hold the power of significantly diminishing the organization's forward momentum and synergy. Leaders should examine their own vocabulary and discourse patterns in light of what follows. Furthermore, leaders should be extremely vigilant about these conversation patterns in other leaders and non-leaders alike.

  1. Negative Valuing: Any mention of negative valuing, e.g., fatalism, apathy, or dislike. Any description of person, group, circumstance, or event as a problem or an obstacle.

  2. Concern, Worry, Preoccupation, Doubt: Any mention of concern, worry, or preoccupation without mention of a possible model to alleviate concern or to enhance understanding; any mention of doubt, suspicion, or lack of confidence in future outcomes.

  3. Unfulfilled Expectation: Any mention of any event, action, state, or person that does not match intention, wish, desire, goal, or other unfulfilled expectation.

  4. Lack of Receptivity, Absence of Connection: Any mention of a lack of receptivity in self or others, including a lack of collaboration, a lack of understanding, a failure to listen or failure to agree, or any explicit mention of an absence of connection.

  5. Deficiency in Self or Others: Any mention of a sense that something is missing, for example, a deficiency in self or others or a lack of motivation, appropriate effort, skill, or competence or an absence of resources (such as time or money).

  6. Negative Effect: Any mention of feelings of dissatisfaction, selfishness, sadness, defensiveness, irritation, or anger without mentioning a possible antidote or relief or effort to understand.

  7. Withdrawal or Suppression: Any mention of avoidance, ignoring, withdrawal or energy or surrender, or suppressing self or others.

  8. Control or Domination: Any notice of effort or action to disrupt, dominate, wield control, or halt a mood or an action in self or others.

  9. Wasted Effort: Any mention of excessive investment of time, resources, or energy without mention of reward or positive outcome.

  10. Prediction, Image or a Negative Future: Any mention of prediction, vision, image, or expectation of a negative future.

  11. Attribution of Control by Others in Combination with Self-Deprecation: Any explicit notice of a cause-and-effect relationships leading to a negative outcome.

  12. Reframing a Situation in Negative Terms: Any mention of a positive emotion with the possibility of a negative outcome; mention of a change in mood from positive to negative or getting into a negative state, focusing on possible obstacles, or reframing a positive situation into more negative terms.

Insights for Leaders and Deficit Vocabularies

There are four key insights for leaders and their usage of deficit vocabularies. First, understand how your position as a leader impacts others. Leaders often underestimate their impact on the organization. This underestimation of influence coupled with the use of deficit language is nothing more than leadership and management irresponsibility. Leaders must know that, since others see them as key influencers, gate keepers and change-agents, their usage of generative or life-giving language is critical to creating a climate where an organization can move forward with energy, power and conviction.

Second, understand how your choice of words creates realities for others and that deficit vocabularies create a deficit or negative organizational culture. Negativity is contagious. Creating negativity in any organization fundamentally creates resistance to change and growth. I'm convinced that internal attitudes, fundamentally the by-product of vocabulary usage by leadership, are the legitimate deal-breakers toward healthy, innovative and positive change in the organization.

Third, language that focuses on organizational deficits or deficiencies always requires a broader and more detailed context usually not available to others beyond executive leadership and critical management. This issue is compounded by the fact that leaders who choose to use deficit vocabularies attempting to build a specific (negative) reality for others intentionally eliminate contextual markers that would provide greater understanding and positive insight.

Fourth, leaders must hold other leaders accountable when they use deficit vocabularies to attempt to construct reality for others who are not in leadership positions. Steinke would call this accountability the building of a strong organizational "immune system."

Leaders and Appreciative Vocabularies

I believe that mature and wise organizational leaders are called to intentionally and knowledgably lead the organization into a future of possibilities, opportunities, promises and potentialities. It is a contradiction for a vested leader to lead the organization downward or backward by focusing or fixating on what is not happening. According to Cooperrider (2003), "deficit based vocabularies can inhibit the vision for a better and brighter future and limit growth" (p. 17). Organizations typically spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on "uncovering problems and identifying issues" (p. 17). As a result, organizational leaders, conditioned by their training to continually sleuth-out dilemmas, are more often than not predisposed to searching for problems to resolve, quandaries to overcome, deficits for which to compensate. As a result, there is little time to focus and invest in the positive givens that could be strengthened, enhanced and expanded. This is where the power of appreciative vocabularies comes into play.

In the same way that deficit vocabularies are disempowering because they construct negative realities form which change and forward-movement is significantly limited, the use of appreciative vocabularies are empowering because they build possibilities and opportunities despite the challenges or what appear to be insurmountable obstacles.

Examples of Appreciative Vocabularies and/or Discourse:
From, Appreciative Inquiry Handbook (2003)

What follows are some examples of appreciative vocabularies and styles of discourse that hold the power of significantly enhancing the organization's forward momentum, enthusiasm and confidence. Wise forward-leaning, forward-moving leaders should build their vocabularies and discourse around these patterns. Furthermore, leaders should encourage this style of discourse in other leaders and non-leaders.

  1. Positive Valuing: Any mention of positive values, past or present.

  2. Hope toward Future: Any mention of hope, optimism, or positive anticipation toward the future.

  3. Skill or Competency: Any mention of skill, competency, action, or positive quality about self or others.

  4. Openness, Receptivity, Learning: Any mention of receptivity in self or others accompanied by a positive outcome; also, any noticing of self or others' learning or interests.

  5. Active Connection, Effort to Include, Cooperation, or Combination: Any noticing of efforts to include, cooperate, connect, and relates that may be accompanied by at least an inferred positive outcome.

  6. Mention of Surprise, Curiosity, or Excitement: Any mention of curiosity, surprise, openness to fresh insights, or excitement in self or others.

  7. Notice of Facilitating Action or Movement toward a Positive Outcome: Any mention of a facilitating action or movement toward a real or imagined positive outcome or any mention of a facilitating object or circumstance. Also, noticing of any event that enhances another event, an effective state, or a person; noticing facilitative or positive cause and effect.

  8. Effort to Reframe in Positive Terms: Any mention of a negative emotion or action accompanied by the possibility of a positive desired outcome; also, any mention of a change in mood from negative to positive, including any mention of an obstacle that is temporary or getting over a negative static state, or reframing a negative situation into more positive terms.

  9. Envisioned Ideal: Any mention of a positive vision/value end-state or articulation of a positive outcome envisioned for a future that is utopian or pragmatic.

Insights for Leaders and Appreciative Vocabularies

Leaders who understand the power of appreciative vocabularies expressed through their relationships within the organization understand that, in the process of that interaction, they help build momentum by influencing the future in a positive manner. There are four benefits which materialize when leaders utilize appreciative vocabularies which focus on positive outcomes.

First, appreciative vocabularies hold the door open to a positive future. Through appreciative vocabularies we are reminded of what is possible, available, and redemptive in the futures of our organizations. This is especially critical in business cultures that are fixated upon negative thinking, immersed in pessimism and overly focused on scarcity and problems. Many business organizational systems are particularly vulnerable to an over-focus on scarcity, low morale and a preoccupation with organizational deficits. Steinke makes the point that, too often, the organization overtly focuses on what is wrong, what is fear-producing and therefore threatening and ominous. In the process, they succumb to a posture of reactivity to yesterday's problems and focus on current dilemmas over which they have no control.

Second, whereas deficit vocabularies contradict forward-moving positivism, appreciative vocabularies affirm and celebrate newness, epiphany and the entrepreneurial risk-taking spirit.

Third, appreciative vocabularies keep us focused on the vision and mission of the organization. By their very nature, a vision and mission calls the organization ahead and forward into an unrealized but yet within-reach future. Anything that takes attention and energy away from the strategic short and long term initiatives reflected through the vision and mission should be viewed as an intrusion or interruption.

Fourth, appreciative vocabularies are fundamentally redemptive and restorative. In other words, the brokenness, fragmentation or imperfection of any situation or relationship, far from being abandoned or rejected, becomes the raw material out of which a new future scenario or relationship can be constructed. This, I believe, is the application of appreciative vocabulary at its best and perhaps most virtuous. It is good for the organization's macro culture but it is also encouraging to the aspirations and hopes of the human heart.

Applications and Conclusion:

It is difficult to imagine trying to live within an organization without complaining or consistently pointing out the negative. We are so baptized by negative thinking and speaking that this way of communicating seems Pollyannaish. To believe that we could actually create an organizational culture where appreciative inquiry and positive discourse was the norm and not the exception, seems impossible. Yet it CAN happen but only if I am willing to begin with myself. As a leader, I know how susceptible I am to thinking and speaking employing negative conversation. Without question, I can shape not only my own perceptions by my own use of deficit vocabulary and negativity but I can also impact those around me as well. All this, without ever lifting a finger to actually DO anything. Organizational leaders and managers must set the stage when it comes to building realities by thinking intentionally about the way they describe what is and what could be. Using appreciative vocabularies within an organization is critical. Leaders would do very well to have intentional conversation with one another about how they lead by the vocabularies they choose. My hope is that the attention we place upon the edifying forward-leaning quality of our "leadership speak" gives the "good infection" to the staff within our organizations that they would do the same.

Leaders should consider hosting a symposium/discussion for their critical staff on the issue of developing Appreciative Leadership Vocabularies.


Dr. Jeffrey D. Yergler lives in University Place, Washington and is Principle for Integer Leadership Consulting (www.integerleadership.com). Dr. Yergler can be reached at jdy@integerleadership.com or by phone at: 253-230-1024.

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Copyright 2005 by Jeffrey D. Yergler. All rights reserved.

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