Recently I was flipping through the television dial and came across the movie Terminator 3… again. In the scene I stumbled upon, The Terminator is trying to motivate the hero by insulting him. The hero gets angry, to which The Terminator responds, “Good! Anger is better than despair.”

I thought to myself, I bet someone will try to use that tactic and that phrase as a motivational tool. Nooooooo!!!

Good leaders are good motivators, not good manipulators. And I have learned that word choice is important in motivating people to better outcomes.

I routinely rely on the following three guiding principles in that regard:

1. Avoid judgmental words. When describing a person’s actions relative to another person’s—especially my own—I try to avoid describing her actions as “good” or “bad.” Instead I will use “different,” as in, “Your choice of words was different from the words I would have chosen.” And if her choice of words threw gasoline on a fire (figuratively speaking), to avoid future occurrences I would also explain why my word choice would have been different.

2. Avoid hot-button words. I try to avoid using words that will put a person on the defensive, especially during learning opportunities. It’s hard for a person to receive input when he is feeling defensive. For instance, I stay away from the word “controlling” to describe a management style. No one wants to be perceived as controlling. Instead I would ask a manager to be even more empowering.

Which brings me to my third guiding principle:

3. Use a positive orientation. I have learned to avoid negative pronouncements whenever possible. My wife’s dresses never look bad on her, but she does own dresses that would look even better on her. Similarly, a teammate who has worked hard or creatively but fallen short of the mark has not failed but would have done even better if… (you fill in the blank).

Because trust is such a critical part of leadership credibility, these guiding principles should never lead to inaccurate or misleading comments, and leaders should not hide behind them when asked a direct question.

But whenever possible, it is always good to avoid being judgmental, to stay away from hot button words and to start from a positive perspective.


Greg Wallace is the Chief Operating Officer for HRock Church in Pasadena, Calif. He loves teaching and helping others pursue their life’s passion. He is passionate about developing leaders, building organizations and helping people and groups thrive in the midst of change.

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