Why Motivating Others Starts with Using the Right Language

The seven members of the offers team gathered for their weekly standup at the New York-based technology startup. There had been misconnects the previous week with the email marketing team and the design team resulting in an inconsistent message that didn’t showcase some of the best offers the group had worked to secure.

“They just had a different agenda than we did,” said one team member. “They were trying to get as many emails out as possible, and it’s extra work to customize them.” 

“Design wasn’t on board either,” another member chimed in. “They couldn’t change the page in the middle of the week—too much work.” Design worked on the far side of the room and email marketing on the next floor.

I love listening to language and the subtle clues people send with their choice of words. In this case, the company designating each little group as a “team,” and this group’s use of “they” for the other teams indicated that they didn’t think of themselves as one team. They were they, after all, and we were we. Marketing and design were divided by the we/they boundary.

The shift from “we” to “they” is typically the boundary between where we cooperate (we cooperate with we) and where we compete (we compete with they.) Despite assertions from company executives that the company was “one team” the language indicated that this wasn’t so.

Words Matter

In 1974, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus started conducting experiments asking people to recall what they had seen in a short video of a car crash. In the survey, some students were asked if they had seen “the” broken headlight and some if they had seen “a” broken headlight. Those that received the the-survey answered that they had seen the broken headlight two to three times as often as those who received the a-survey. In fact, there was no broken headlight. 

Conversely, those who received the a-survey were two to three times more likely to select “I don’t know” than those who received the the-survey. In other words, a single difference between “a” and “the” made a big difference in what people thought they remembered. 


Humans are incredibly good at making quick interpretations of visual scenes. We then decide what to do. This provides an evolutionary advantage. It works extremely well at an individual level and has kept the species alive. 

When we interact as a group, however, this skill limits our effectiveness. We argue about what to do without being curious about the different interpretations we may have of reality. Worse, we actually see different things, each of us thinking we see the whole picture.

The leader’s job then is to first make visible to the entire group what everyone thinks to be reality—what they see—and make all perspectives equally valuable. Research by Garold Strasser and William Titus shows that team members tend to share information that other people already know and are reluctant to offer information they alone hold, especially if it might disaffirm a commonly held belief. Teams value information relative to the number of team members that know it—not how important, precise, or accurate the information is. 

The leader’s job then is to first make visible to the entire group what everyone thinks to be reality.

Onboard the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine where I had the privilege of serving as captain, one of the decisions we needed to make and continuously validate was where should we put the submarine. Various members of the crew had different parts of the answer. The sonar officer knew about the bottom topography and where the best listening was. The intelligence officer was familiar with the most recent reports on enemy movements, and so on. There was always inconsistent and conflicting information that different members of the team had, but getting all the information out was the hard part. Once that was done, the decision tended to be easy.

Move Up the Ladder of Control

Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 1.21.08 PM

One of the leadership principles we practiced was to push authority to as low a level as possible, and perhaps even a bit more. This meant the authority to make decisions affecting the operational employment of the submarine and the men aboard it. In the past, officers would “request permission to” perform operations such as submerge the ship. Regulations stipulated that the captain approve these operations. In the past, the captain would then respond with, “submerge the ship” and the officer would repeat, “submerge the ship, aye.”

We changed this. Officers stopped asking permission and instead stated “I intend to…” The effect was immediate and profound. Now, officers stated, “Captain, I intend to submerge the ship” and I would respond, “very well.” That was the perfect end state.

Initially I had a lot of questions for the officers about whether it was safe, whether the preconditions were met, whether the team was ready, and whether it was the right thing to do. With time, I asked fewer and fewer questions as the officers learned to provide that necessary information at the same time they stated their intent. 

The immediate and obvious benefit was that with this small shift in language, just a few words really, the officers became the driving force behind the submarine’s operations rather than me, the leader. They loved it.

Moving people from “request permission” to “I intend to…” raised them one rung on the ladder of control (right), from passive followers doing what they were told at the bottom to proactive engaged leaders, crafting the future, at the top. 

Just Tell Me What To Do

You may notice a lot of “tell me what to do” when you listen to the conversations around you. Oftentimes, it does not sound exactly like “tell me what to do” but that’s in essence what it is. For example, reporting a problem to the boss without a proposed solution (or a path toward getting a solution) is a veiled “tell me what to do.” 

With a little bit of awareness you can peg where people are on this continuum and coax them up. As you move up, shifting control and psychological ownership to the subordinate, their minds will engage, and typically involvement and passion will follow. 

It’s hard work. On any day the pressures of your job will bias you toward working at the bottom of the ladder. But the next time one of your subordinates tries to trick you into telling them what to do, take the time to ask them what they think you should do. Then be quiet and listen.

With time, these incremental changes will have a profound impact not only on your organization’s effectiveness, but on the lives of its people.  

How about you?

How have you seen language affect team dynamics?

Part One: Why Motivating Others Starts with Using the Right Language
Part Two: The Counterintuitive Art of Leading by Letting Go
Part Three: How to Source Suggestions from a Reluctant Team Member


More insights on: Leadership

David Marquet

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David is the former commander of the nuclear powered submarine USS Santa Fe and author of Turn the Ship Around!, which Fortune Magazine called the “best how-to manual anywhere for managers on delegating, training, and driving flawless execution.”
load comments (21)
  • JS

    Check out this mindmap for more leadership tips:


  • @Stev_Jack

    Very nice David. Thanks for sharing.

  • @Stev_Jack

    I had a conversation with the leader of a PMO in the Financial sector yesterday in which we discuss the need to have her staff enter in time estimates for projects. She told me that culturally time tracking was not something that her staff wanted to be ‘subjected’ to. Problem is, I pressed; is that without time tracking, the company PMs can not accurately predict when projects will be completed and the PMO can not deliver the value that Execs are expecting. I told her that it comes down to how she explains the need to actually do the time tracking to the staff members and other stakeholders. How they will stand on the ROI on any activity, I told her, depends on where they sit in the organization, I explained. Time tracking is viewed differently by C-level Execs, PMs, Managers and Individual contributors. Explaining to the Individual contributors that time tracking is not Big Brother, but a way for the PMO to have the data to produce analytic reports that will show C-level execs, and prove that additional Developers, Testers and Q&A staff that they have been asking her for are actually REQUIRED, in order for them to address the backlog that is keeping them from getting SW shipped on time, for example. Without the data, there can be no analytics showing the Execs where more resources are needed among their Project Portfolio. Put that way the support for time tracking will be volunteer, not forced, I told her. It is just a matter of how it is explained and what words are used when speaking to each group of stakeholders.

  • Mike Sullivan

    My Dad was great at using language for motivation. He used to start with, “Damnit’ Mike!” It was very effective. Of course, he could bench 400lbs, so that helped.

    Good piece!

  • Bob Miller

    Reference the work in Managing Management Time by Bill Oencken. I learned a very similar set of rules early in my career in the 1980s. This 7 step scale is even better.

  • http://www.lauravrcek.com Laura Vrcek

    Great piece! So many communication nuances often go overlooked.

  • Bruce Walton

    A thoughtful and succinct article. For any organization or group of size to move forward, the people involved must be able to see where their thoughts and ideas fit in the bigger picture. Employees, members, team mates all need to be able to make decisions in complex systems without waiting for permission. Otherwise, waiting for the leader to decide on every matter, limits quality responses and thoughtfu actions.

    As an experienced public school principal, I learned that shifting the language from they to we was the key cultural shift that led to substantial and sustain positive growth. I also believe that the leader has to demonstrate that decisions resulting in mistakes and missteps are to expected at times and used to inform future actions. If folks are asked to be more engaged in making decisions, they can only move away from needing to make the “right” decision if it is safe to do so.

  • http://www.ledcome.com/ Eugene Matthews

    David I really liked the notion of language that you introduced – words mean things. A simple change from them and they to us and we can spin virtually any challenge on its ear, and help move toward a solution.
    My experience with the “just tell me what to do” syndrome dealt more along the lines of disciplinary actions, where I would reflect to my subordinate, “what do you think should happen to someone who does “X”?” Invariably, their response was significantly more strenuous than I would have meted out, which gave me the opportunity to expand, except, or reduce the proposed sanction. I didn’t use it for every situation, but for several it was an outstanding solution.
    Lastly, I think it is inherent for authentic leaders to engender themselves to those they lead, as a result direct reports are constantly trying to “please the boss” and when they fall short, it’s very rarely due to a lack of effort. For that reason, I think the school of positive psychology might have it right when they suggest that for every negative comment, there should be at least two positives, in order to maintain an employee’s equilibrium with regard to motivation.

  • David Bauer

    Really glad to have read this.

  • http://www.endgamebusiness.com/blog Steve Borek

    This article is timely. I’m a business and career coach as well as a faculty leader. I’m currently teaching a coaching course in Language. Today, we discussed how changing one word can empower the client. I sent this article to my class to review. Thanks David.

  • Ricardo by the sea

    Inspiring, it gave me an opportunity to seriously examine my attitudes towards cooperation and decision making. Thank you.

  • http://borgenproject.org/ Diana Truong

    Thanks so much for the articles! We could definitely use this for our nonprofit organization! Language is definitely key in convincing individuals to fight for poverty! The Borgen Project is an influential ally for the world’s poor. We build support in Congress for initiatives that improve living conditions for people hit hardest by poverty and hunger. Visit the site for more info. http://borgenproject.org

  • Joel Brown

    “When we interact as a group, however, this skill limits our effectiveness. We argue about what to do without being curious about the different interpretations we may have of reality.” – Very interesting. I love it. Thank you for sharing such a great insightful post.

  • Joel Brown

    “When we interact as a group, however, this skill limits our effectiveness. We argue about what to do without being curious about the different interpretations we may have of reality.” – Very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing such an insightful article with us. Love your work guys!

  • Elaine S. Hansen

    I think this also has applications for raising our children into responsible mature adults and all employees.

  • Glory

    My most favorite Over All OUTSTANDING PROFESSIONAL ARTICLES. WOW awesome thank you so very, very much.
    To DISCIPLINE, REMIND, TEACH, TRAIN, some Wrong Doers, liars, dishonest etc. Toxic Leaders etc. whom I worked 1998- 2009 too long, too much I’ve been through a lot hurts, sufferings. Some Leaders with their groups made my working conditions extremely INTOLERABLE. They kicked me OUT. They demoted me, FORCED me to QUIT. So unfair. Not right! Outrageous some leaders, managements a Cambridge Police Department, Massachusetts HR/PERSONNEL office. The Police & City Hall, City of Cambridge The Defendants truthfully damages my health etc. severely. They made my life unworthy, severe miserable.
    Don’t do to others if you don’t want others do unto you. Discipline yourselves some leaders by this professional ARTICLES. I honor and respect. Quite amazing, awesome giving me more effort, energy, strength etc. EXCELLENT ARTICLES

  • Tracy Jackson

    Love this piece. Really like the research used to support your points, and the ‘ladder of control’ is outstanding. My favorite part? The leader’s job then is to first make visible to the entire group what everyone thinks to be reality—what they see—and make all perspectives equally valuable.

  • Bruna Di Gioia

    A very useful article to understand self motivation and autonomy. Thanks for sharing. Curiously, I have just been through “Do your own thing” by Sean Smith and they seem very closely linked. The ladder described helps create awareness of behaviour in hierarchy and also to be in charge of our own intentions.

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