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Words Matter

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
March 10, 2017

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

“It’s your actions not your words which demonstrate the kind of leader you are.”

PaddockWe’ve been trained to believe that actions, not words, are what matter. However, our current political environment has made us increasingly aware of the power of words, especially as they have been used to redefine our understanding of today’s politics and society. Words may be even more important than actions for several reasons.

  1. Words communicate expectations, and expectations shape outcomes. Research over the past 50 years has demonstrated the power of expectations. Per Raudenbush’s 1984 study, which has been replicated in several settings, a teacher’s expectations of the academic ability of students affected the achievement of those children if the teacher was not already acquainted with the students. In the workplace, leader expectations of the employee, including the leader’s trust of and respect for the employee, may alter leader behavior. Leaders with more positive expectations communicate this, including in the setting of goals and the providing of feedback. Known as the Pygmalion effect, this behavior can in turn affect how an employee behaves and, ultimately, whether the employee is successful.
  2. Words can cross the line from free speech to hate speech. Recently, students at an Ohio basketball game chanted taunts at the opposing team that, the principal wrote in a letter to parents, went beyond free speech or political speech. “… (T)he exact point where political opinion converges with disrespect, discrimination or hate speech must be separated.” To be sure, this line is not clear, and many disagree about whether speech is “free” or “hate.” Universities have struggled with this issue, as they attempt to create places that are both “free” and “safe.” Regardless, the words do matter and attention must be paid to them. As George Orwell wrote, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
  3. Words can corrupt. A single lie, or “fake news,” can undo previously accepted truth or information. We have discovered recently how difficult it is to identify, and to reverse fake news.
  4. Words connect us to one another. As Cassandra Clare wrote in the Clockwork Prince, “We live and breathe words. …. It was books that made me feel that perhaps I was not completely alone.” This fact is also cautionary: using words can distance us from one another if we choose them unwisely. It is not just insults which separate us; jargon, acronyms and pretentious language also separate us.
  5. Words provide us with a shared sense of the world. Anne, in Anne of Avonlea says, “I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.” Socrates said it more succinctly: “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.”
  6. Words reflect the world as we see it, or as it is presented to us. “We seldom realize…that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society,” said Alan W. Watts. Even a single word can be important. For example, whether the United States’ primary concern is domestic or foreign is reflected in the verb that is used. As David Shribman wrote, in our country’s early years “the country’s name took a plural verb (“the United States are…”), the focus was inward…. Later, the country took a singular verb (“the United States is…”) and…the country began to look outward.” In public administration, it matters whether we write that “the agency believes…” or “agency employees believe…”

Words, whether spoken or written, whether directed internally to the organization or externally to the public, are central to what any administrator’s success. They allow us to achieve our objectives and present our best selves. We are familiar with this “coin of the realm.” Even so, we must continue to choose words that reflect reality, that are not simply “spin,” that exhibit positive expectations, that allow for freedom of speech without abusing others, that connect the administrator and the agency to the public, and that provide a shared sense of the world in which we live, and the actions and goals we seek. And, we will be reminded that, regardless of our best efforts, our words may sometimes be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas, NV. She is the former director of Certified Public Manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin; has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources; and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Email [email protected]

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