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Want to Increase Retention? Understand The Power of Just One Word

All of us are often more powerful than we believe, which can be either negative or positive. In their outstanding book, Sway, The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman study why people make decisions that defy logic and evidence. It’s a great read, and I recommend it to all who want to understand their partners, clients, prospects and employees more thoroughly.

In Sway, the authors tell us: “…a single word has the power to alter our whole perception of another person – and possibly sour the relationship before it even begins. When we hear a description of someone, no matter how brief, it inevitably shapes our experience of that person.”

Think about your own personal experience. When someone – particularly someone in a position of authority – has told you to “stay away from that guy; he’s trouble”, it probably had an effect on your opinion. When someone you respect described a client as a jerk, you almost certainly went into a meeting with that client a bit more guarded than you might have otherwise.

Now consider the times you have been in a discussion with a partner, and perhaps described your employee, John, in a negative way. “John’s just too slow.” “He’s a lousy writer.” “Inaccurate.” “Lazy.” These little words are more than descriptors of John’s performance. In using them, you may be dooming John to a cascade of negativity and low expectations. And if you’re really unlucky, he just might live up to your low expectations. Eventually, you’ll have to fire him for poor performance, or he’ll find somewhere that’s more positive and, perhaps, more kind.

It’s so easy to criticize. We can condemn with little more than one or two syllables, even when that is not our intent. Words can be weapons or tools. Choose to make them tools in your management style.

The next time you’re reviewing employee behavior with a colleague, consider carefully what you say. Instead of negative descriptors, try using active verbs that inform your colleague what needs to happen to improve the situation. Instead of “John’s just too slow”, try: “John needs more clarity on goals and deadlines.” Instead of “Inaccurate”, how about : “Let’s supervise John more closely to find where his thinking is going awry”. You get the idea.

The search for methods to improve behaviors and outcomes in firms is definitely hard work, but it will lead to stronger employees (and partners), higher work quality, and a more respectful environment. Those traits increase the possibility of lower turnover. In this age of scarce resources, that alone ought to make it worth the effort.

© Melinda Guillemette 2009