Words That Build or Break Your Team

Leadership is not about being in charge. It’s about taking care of those in your charge.

Simon Sinek
[4-min read]

A Tale of 3 Leaders

Words matter.

In my career, I've worked under many different types of leaders. Each one left a distinct mark on their teams through their words.

The Chaos Creator

The first leader I recall created chaos. He used his words as tools for manipulation.

He didn’t build a team, he divided us.

“Tom managed to finish his part of the project in half the time you did. What’s holding you back?” he’d say, pitting us against each other.

His micromanaging stopped us from taking initiative.

“If you can’t do it the way I asked you to, maybe you’re not cut out for this job,” he’d dismiss, leaving us feeling devalued.

He hoarded information, thinking it made him more powerful: “There are a few things I haven’t shared yet. I’ll fill you in when I think the time is right.”

It seemed like he enjoyed undermining our confidence.

The Absentee Claimer

The second leader was more of a ghost than a guide. He was hardly around and didn’t really know what we were doing.

But he always claimed credit for our successes.

“Great job on the project. I knew my guidance would pay off,” he’d say, taking credit for work he knew little about.

His interactions were often superficial.

“Keep up the good work. I’m always here... just an email away,” he’d say, without ever really being there for us.

The Empowering Mentor

The third leader showed empathy and empowerment. She viewed leadership as a role of service.

“How can I support you in achieving our goals?” she’d ask.

Her belief in our abilities was evident.

“I trust your judgment on this. Your instincts are good and you have the skills to make the right decision.”

She balanced high expectations with genuine care.

“This is an important project and you're doing great, but remember, your well-being comes first,” she reminded us.

She didn’t just care about results. She cared about our growth.

And her leadership style turned our team into a powerhouse of motivated and growing individuals.

In these 3 leaders, I saw firsthand how words can shape a team’s culture — for better or for worse.

The Power of a Leader’s Words

Why do words matter so much in leadership? It’s simple.

A leader’s words can shape reality. They can build up a team’s confidence or tear it down.

Words can create a vision that everyone rallies around or leave team members lost and disengaged.

Here are some specific things you can say to forge stronger teams:

  1. “I believe in your potential.” This simple statement can boost team members’ confidence and drive (see last week’s issue for more on the Pygmalion Effect).

  2. “Your contributions are valuable.” Acknowledging individual efforts shows appreciation and builds a sense of belonging.

  3. “How can I help you succeed?” Offering support empowers team members and shows the leader is invested in their success.

  4. “Let’s learn from this mistake.” Framing failures as learning opportunities encourages growth and innovation.

  5. “What are your thoughts?” Asking for input promotes collaboration and shows that every opinion matters.

For more on what great leaders say, check out this infographic I created. It’s packed with insights on how the right words can strengthen your team.

Words are not just a means of communication; they’re a leadership tool.

The right words at the right time can inspire, motivate, and unify a team.

Making It Work for You

It’s easier than you think to put this into practice. Here’s how:

  1. Listen First: Before you speak, listen. Understand your team’s views and concerns.

  2. Reflect on Your Words: Think about what you’ll say. Ask yourself, “Will this build up or break down?”

  3. Be Genuine: Mean what you say. Sincerity in your words builds trust.

  4. Give Specific Praise: When you praise, be specific. Say exactly what was done well.

  5. Encourage Openly: Offer encouragement in team meetings. Public support boosts morale.

Start small. Try using one of these approaches in your next team interaction. You’ll see the difference it makes!

Diving Deeper

To deepen your understanding of leadership communication, here are 2 resources I recommend:

  1. I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships by Michael S. Sorensen. One of my favorite books on this topic. It gives practical advice on how to enhance any relationship through effective listening and validation.

  2. TED Talk: How Great Leaders Inspire Action by Simon Sinek. If you haven’t seen it, take 17 mins and watch it now. If you have, watch it again. It has 80M combined views on YouTube and TED.com for a reason.

Connecting the Dots

Great leadership goes beyond giving orders. It’s about inspiring and guiding.

Every word you speak can lift your team higher or hold them back. Choose words that spark confidence and collaboration.

Remember, effective leadership transforms groups into teams and visions into victories.

Embrace the power of your words.

Until we meet again, lead with impact,