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. 

See-Interpret-Act

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

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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?

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.”
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