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Words Matter

Project Management Essentials

I believe a person’s credibility is impacted more by what they do, than by what they say. I have seen many inspiring presentations from leaders that never got executed. However, words do have consequences.

There is a lot of research today on the impact of words and how they change our brain, impact our health, and influence the course of our lives. The words we use impact how people perceive us, how they feel about themselves, and ultimately determine the strength of our relationships. I know that leaders who speak in powerful, positive ways are more fun to work with, and I want to be more like them.

As project leaders, we have choices every day in how we speak to our business partners, to our team and within our organization.

Speaking Our Minds

We speak our minds every day. Whether we are positive or negative in our choice of words, ultimately, our words come from our thoughts. The old adage of “watch your thoughts, they become your words” is very true.

If we are suspicious of other people and their motives, we can develop the habit of using negative words. Harsh words may be used to point out faults and failures, or attribute evil intentions to the actions of others, with the effect of diminishing others and making us feel superior. We may stop looking for or expecting good behavior in other people.

Our media propagates negative and harsh language that spills over into the business environment. While co-workers may believe they are providing a public service by sharing their views, these highly charged conversations are more likely to create conflict and erode trust within the team.

Some people just seem steeped in negativity. Debbie Downer was the name of a Saturday Night Live character who would add bad news and negative opinions to every conversation. These individuals are focused on sharing bad news, peddling office gossip or kindling office disputes. They distract people from their work, feed pessimism and can ultimately destroy a team. To paraphrase a biblical saying, the negative tongue subverts many, demolishes walled cities, and topples powerful dynasties.

Combating Negative Conversations

As project leaders, we should commit ourselves to speak powerfully and positively to the people around us. In my experience, a few things are effective in reducing negativity.

  • When faced with negative people and situations, I refrain from speaking too quickly. When a response is required, it helps to keep words factual and fair and avoid disparaging other people (whether present or not). To reduce my own negative attitude, I try to curb harsh judgements of others and assume the best of intentions. Over time my own outlook and language has become more positive and mature.
  • A “Debbie Downer” can ultimately destroy a team. I have made efforts to curb their gossip, ignore their negativity and laugh off their provocation but whenever possible, find a way to move them out.
  • Most news and programs are downright demoralizing! I set personal time limits on these and spend more time with other people, volunteering in the community, or reading inspiring books. If you have children, I encourage you to go out and play! By putting good experiences and information into our minds, our thoughts and words become more compassionate, kind, and respectful.

Words Are Like Feathers

A story from Jewish tradition illustrates the consequences of harsh words. I don’t know the author’s name, however, a similar children’s book is titled A Sack Full of Feathers by Debby Waldman.

A young intern is working with a senior manager and begins to share a negative story about him. The story is spread all over the office, but later the intern learns that the story he has shared isn’t true. He goes to the manager to apologize and asks what he needs to do to restore their relationship. The manager tells him to bring a feather pillow to the office the next day. Confused, the intern does what he is told. The next day, the manager takes the intern to a second story window and tells him to cut the pillow open. The feathers fall into the street below and the wind scatters the feathers far and wide. Then the manager tells the intern to collect the feathers. The intern responds, “that would be impossible!” The manager says, “Yes, and so it is with words. Once said, you can’t take them back, and our relationship can’t be restored to the way it was before.”

Harsh words have a lasting effect on the people around us. They cause anger, hurt feelings, and a loss of self-esteem. Even unintentional harshness can create misunderstandings with long term consequences for a relationship. When we stay authentically focused on being positive, making our projects successful and helping others, it becomes easier to speak in positive and powerful ways to others.

Related Information

During a roundtable discussion hosted by Regis University on Oct. 28, 2020, Emotional Intelligence expert Deborah Westcott described how project managers can leverage their empathy towards and awareness of others to improve team rapport and communication.

From Nov. 5 to Dec. 5 PMI members worldwide are participating in a Global Month of Service. During this month PMI is supporting Amnesty International's Write for Rights campaign to use our words for good. Take the pledge today!

About the Author

Annette Leazer, CMA, PMP, SA, is a transformation consultant working with executives to create more effective operations and greater business value. Both vision and execution are key to motivate people to transform work. She guides leaders to develop transformation vision and strategy, establish program structure and oversight, and build and coach teams to be successful. She also shares tips, resources, and leading practices as a project management mentor and through her Transformation Tips blog.


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