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Posted by on Dec 22, 2013 in Business, Featured, Leadership, Strategy, Strengths | 2 comments

Magnify Success: Choose Your Words Wisely


No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. - Aesop

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’  Many of you will remember this popular rhyme from elementary school.  In fact, you may have even recited it a number of times as kids as it’s a common childhood idiom we use to remind people they cannot hurt us with the bad things they say or write about us.  Well, now that we’re all a little older (and a little wiser), we know that this isn’t quite true.

Words have derailed political campaigns, ruined marriages, started wars, and destroyed businesses.  Words are a very powerful tool which can either diminish us or inspire us. So much so, in fact, that cognitive scientists tell us emotionally loaded words quickly attract attention, and bad words (war, hate, crime) attract attention faster than happy words (peace, love, joy). In a paper titled, Bad is Stronger than Good, researchers report overwhelming evidence that “bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than the good.” What comes out of our mouth as leaders makes an immense difference–for good, or bad.

What comes out of our mouth as leaders makes an immense difference–for good, or bad.

Take the story of Gene Mauldin.  Mauldin grew up in a home in which he was told he would amount to nothing.  He heard it so much that he began believing every word. Only after he was blinded during the Vietnam War did someone finally tell him that he was loaded with talent. Invigorated with a new found confidence in himself, Mauldin went to college, eventually graduating with honors.  He then started a construction company that eventually became one of St. Louis’s top homebuilders. Words of affirmation allowed him to see his potential even after he lost his sight.

In a fascinating study of 60 top management teams who were engaged in an annual strategic planning, problem solving, and budget setting summit, researchers set out to determine what it was that made some teams perform better than others.  Communication experts were then brought in to analyze the team member’s interactions. At end of the evaluation, a single element emerged as the most important factor in predicting the team’s performance—positive statements!

Those workgroups that routinely made positive statements, such as expressing appreciation, support, helpfulness, or sharing compliments, significantly out-performed those who used either negative statements (such as expressing dissatisfaction, cynicism or criticism) or sparingly used positive language. In fact, the results of the research revealed that the highest performing teams had a ratio of positive to negative statements of 5.6 to one.  That’s over five times more positive statements were made to every negative statement.

In contrast, the ordinary teams (read average) had a ratio of 1.85 to one.  That’s about two positive phrases for every negative phrase used.  And here’s the eye-opener:  In the lowest performing teams, the ratio was a mere .36 to one.  In other words, for every one positive statement, three negative statements were made!

People who intentionally work to maximize positive interactions experience a host of advantages, including increased job satisfaction, greater engagement, and enhanced performance.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should never have negative interactions. In fact, research by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of Michigan shows we can actually overdo positive phrases. When the ratio climbs to 13 to one or greater, we’ve moved from high performing to high conformity.  In these environments, people are not confronting challenging situations, they are avoiding them. And in doing so, are once again allowing mediocrity to own the day.

So please remember this. Our words matter, more than you may have ever thought.  So much so, in fact, that studies show that people who intentionally work to maximize positive interactions experience a host of advantages, including increased job satisfaction, greater engagement, and enhanced performance.  So the next time you’re tempted to believe that ‘sticks and stones may break ones bones but words will never hurt us,’ think again.  Our words possess immense power.  They can cut like a sharp knife that wounds and destroys, or serve as a soothing balm that heals and brings life.

Choose your words wisely and watch those around you flourish, thrive and come fully alive. Work at reducing the negativity that escapes from your lips. Let positive speech be your trademark.


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Image credit: alphaspirit / 123RF Stock Photo


John E. Michel

John is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. The senior-curator for, he is an accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster who has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts. His award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. In addition to serving our nation as an active duty General Officer in the United States Air Force, John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible. He is blessed to be married to the most patient person on the planet and together, they have two amazing sons. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website,

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  • Achim Nowak

    John – I appreciate the gentle wisdom in your post. Words truly have the power to uplift, to stir, to touch the soul (thinking of Ted Coine’s post here …). And it requires daily vigilance, doesn’t it? Have a holiday week full of words that nurture you and everyone you encounter …

  • Bert

    Oh, how words matter. It seems we no longer have the ability (or maybe it’s the desire) to think about what we say. We mutter cliche terms without thinking about what they really mean. We give praise to others with words that are actually degrading. We portray ourselves as educated but use language patterns that display something entirely different.

    A single word, strategically placed, can either build up or tear down. There is enough negative in this world. Let’s communicate in ways that improve others’ self confidence.

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