Words Can Positively Change Your World

Recently, my computer engineering mentor Sam and I were geeking out on leadership topics. He works at a tech company in the Silicon Valley in a role that’s part software engineering and part leadership coach.

At one point in the conversation on company culture, Sam referenced one of his favorite models, the Five Stages of Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, which suggests that company cultures and the people that make them up have an order of evolution. He lamented that his company had slipped from an “I’m great” Stage 3 to a “my life sucks” Stage 2, and he was concerned about how to bring it back.

“And what’s worse,” Sam observed, “I’m feeling dragged into that line of thinking, too.”

In the first two stages, people see the world from a helpless, victim mindset. The mantra of Stage 1 people is “life sucks.” Here the thinking is aggressive, and people grow strong ties to get ahead in a world where the deck is stacked against them. The world might not actually be so unfair and hostile, but people at this stage think it is. In Stage 2, a person or company culture can shift from “life sucks” to “my life sucks.”

This is the mindset Sam saw his company slipping into. Previously, Sam said they were in Stage 3, where the general company culture was exhibiting the behavior of “I’m great.” Here people are engaged and committed to the organization, but when you listen closely their focus is upon being the smartest person at the table and focusing attention on them. Sound familiar? It should, as most company cultures that are on autopilot are here.

In Stage 4, “I’m great” transitions into “We’re great.” Here teams are healthy collaborators with shared values and a common purpose, information is shared freely, and people tend to ask, “what’s the next right thing to do?” Their language focuses on “we,” not “me.” Finally, in Stage 5, “We’re great” turns into “Life is great.” Here you see leadership from everyone involved. People are inspired and share a vision for the future. It can be tough to stay at Stage 5, so often teams will recede to Stage 4 to make infrastructure challenges before going back to Stage 5. Think of this stage as Olympic gold and Super Bowl wins.

Sam knew what it looked like for people or teams to transition from one to another. But, he struggled to identify tools he could employ to consciously and subconsciously spur a shift in employee perceptions away from “My life sucks,” to “I’m great” again. After some discussion, I advised him to think more closely about language, and leverage words to help shift his teams back to Stage 3.

Research also suggests that repeating negative thoughts over and over in our minds increases levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. This, in turn, results in low-level feelings of anxiety and feeling on edge all the time. Sending such alarms of danger to the brain so frequently can allow the brain’s fear center (the amygdala) to gain too much influence on our thoughts, eventually overwhelming the logic and reasoning centers of the brain in the frontal lobe.

Negative, or limiting thoughts are just words unspoken. Regardless of if you are thinking them or speaking them, words affect the chemical composition of our minds, which in turn affects how we see the world. It can be a subtle downward spiral if one is not paying attention.

These changes that happen in our brains can explain why Sam’s teams slipped into Stage 2 languaging. The stressors of their workplace may have caused them to carry anxiety, and the resulting stress hormones in their systems might have allowed their amygdalas to influence their thoughts with feelings of fear and frustrations. This was likely making it harder for their executive functions to point out the logic behind why they were still “great,” and not living in a “life that sucked.”

As Sam and I discussed possibilities for combating the negative self-talk of “my life sucks” with positivity, we theorized he could shift the minds of his employees back to “I’m great” simply by encouraging his fellow managers and supervisors to start using “I’m great” language. Additionally, leadership at his company could encourage people to reframe their negative thoughts into positive ones whenever a negative frame was spotted.

To get him started, I offered Sam these pointers:

Look for genuine opportunities to tell people they are great. Compliments and positive reinforcement — when authentic — go a long, long way.

Always talk about what you want; refrain from talking about avoiding something you don’t want. Instead of saying, “that’s not a bad idea,” say, “that’s a good idea.” “Instead of, “I don’t hate that,” say, “I like that.” This type of directness can help you get more of what you want, and help you show up more powerfully.

Use flow over force language. Force language sounds like “you should,” “You need to,” “you have you,” so and so “says to.” Flow language is “you get to,” “you might like/love to,” “there’s an opportunity to,” “you may consider.” People often respond poorly when you force them to do something, and it can create a sense of obligation, which can result in stress responses in the body. Flow based language gives a person a choice to take an action, and helps everyone feel like they are more a part of the process — including yourself.

Express advocacy (giving your opinion or telling people what to do) only when you have received an implicit or explicit invitation to do so. Explicit is direct, while implicit is contextual, such as when your boss — who has the right to tell you how to do you job — gives you instructions.

● And of course, find opportunities to speak positively as much as you can — keeping in mind that positivity has to be congruent. If someone is experiencing a real loss, trying to get them to focus on the positive may be received as an invalidation of their feelings. In many cases though, a small shift towards positive words and framing can turn a glass-half-empty situation into one that generates enthusiasm.

Consider the Tribal Leadership model and others that track individual and group evolutions from a victim mentality to one of vision. What stage do you think you are living in? No matter where you fall on the spectrum, what would your world look like if you moved up one level?

This week, observe the words you use in your life — be it at home or at work, in emails, or when speaking to others — and take a mental or physical tally of how often you phrase your experiences in the negative. As you notice negative expressions, try to catch yourself and reframe or rephrase the words into positive ones. At the end of the week, evaluate how you feel about your life. Does it seem like you are still in the same stage you were in at the beginning, or have you moved up a little?

“Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.” — Willie Nelson

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